Monday, July 28, 2014

Brady challenges run defense to step up as Patriots' conclude first week of camp

The annual exodus from the New England Patriots' bandwagon has begun.

Things have started to settle down on the New England Patriots' rumor front - amazing how the start of training camp does that - though there are still a good number of die-hard detractors who believe that names like Dustin Keller, Jermichael Finley and Andre Johnson will somehow end up in Foxborough to save the team from its own short-sightedness.

The media is still split in this regard, as many, many bloggers - and not just a few beat writers - are taking the stance that the Patriots' offense is doomed without at least one of these guys - an astounding display of ignorance given that the Patriots' offense is as loaded as its been in years.
Starting corners? Revis and Ryan set to hit the field on Saturday

Case in point: Towards the end of Sunday's practice with storm clouds looming nearby, the Patriots' offensive line was manhandling the defensive line in power drills - and as they lined up to run the last play before the field was deluged in heavy rain, quarterback Tom Brady stood over center and barked out an unfamiliar cadence aimed at drawing the ire of the defense.

"Hit the weight room!"

The gauntlet has now officially been thrown down, which should make for a spirited week of practices when camp resumes on Tuesday morning - Brady's gesture sure to be taken as a challenge for a defense that promises to be the best that most fans have ever seen coming out of Foxborough, particularly those who became fans after Bill Belichick took over.

That said, let's have a look at how our camp previews hold up to the action on the field thus far:

Part 1: Kraft's business savvy, Belichick's commitment keys to the Patriot way

Belichick has resisted any urge he may have had (Believe me, he hasn't had any) to break up the philosophies and schemes put in place throughout the offseason by signing any one of a number of big-name free agents still floating around in the nanosphere of football - and will continue to stay the course.

There is a certain satisfaction that comes from watching your plans come together, no matter your occupation, and Belichick is as human as anyone else - but unlike many, he will not yield to public scrutiny nor fan sentiment.  He was hired 15 years ago to put together the best teams that he could, and it's worked out pretty well so far.'s resident Belichick hater Albert Breer tried to get under Bill's skin during a press conference in regard to the text messages that the team turned over between he and Aaron Hernandez, but Belichick shut him down in a hurry.  Breer knows that Belichick will not talk about non-football topics during press conferences, and he can't help but try to antagonize his long-time nemesis - but the volatile coach won out again, and Breer looked like a jilted bride - again.

Part 2: Offensive concepts grounded in history, but with a modern flair

As always, there is very little reason to doubt that Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the National Football League, despite all of the goofy lists that journalists put together to fill up their time during the dog days of summer.  He may not have the strongest arm (it's right up there), and he moves like a new-born deer trying to find it's legs, but there is no one better in the league at running their team's offense.

Garoppolo is enduring typical rookie struggles
Next question?

Understandably, rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is having to endure some struggles - and it all comes from making the transition from small-college to the pros.  He has fumbled the exchange from center four times in three days and had some curious decisions in getting the ball down the field - but these things are to be expected as his level of competition has increased by a factor of 10, and he ran his offense at Eastern Illinois solely out of the shotgun.

Sunday was a much better day for Garoppolo, who seemed to work out some of his accuracy issues and looked much sharper, his easy looking long ball consistently finding its target.

Still, the slippery exchange from center is not well tolerated by Belichick, and if he doesn't stem that tide soon, he's going to produce a well-worn path around the practice fields as it's Belichick's policy that fumblers run laps...

Part 3: Running Back competition wide open; changes certain

As expected, rookie running back James White has been one of the stars of camp, and as such, he is receiving quality snaps with the first team - displaying dazzling quickness to the second level in the running game and showing off his fly paper like hands in the passing game.

But with just two practices in pads - one cut short by Mother Nature's bad mood - the runners have just begun to become acclimated and no one but White and H-back James Develin have set themselves apart, a fact that only adds to the intrigue in the backfield as this is a make-or-break contract year for incumbent backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.
White has been explosive

In fact, Ridley stepped up and had a bit of praise for the rookie, saying that while it isn't his style to single out individual players, White "has come in and done an awesome job."

Not everything was awesome for White on Sunday, however, as an attempted shoulder feign on cornerback Brandon Browner and subsequent sharp cut to the outside ended up with the rookie flat on his back - an invaluable "Welcome to the NFL" learning experience for the Wisconsin grad in that he now knows that some of the moves that college defenders couldn't handle probably need a little fine-tuning in the pros.

That said, Belichick had to have been ecstatic that as big a hit that Browner leveled him with, White held onto the ball.

First year power backs Jonas Gray and Stephen Houston have drawn attention to themselves for the wrong reasons, both joining the growing number of pass catchers that have dropped picture-perfect passes - while Develin has picked up the slack and has had several noted catches and is an absolute beast as a lead blocker in short yardage.

Part 4: Nasty changes coming along offensive line

As is usually the case, the defensive line seems to be further along in becoming reacquainted with contact with the pads coming on over the weekend - particularly on Saturday - though there were a few offensive linemen who stepped up and have had a solid week.

Rookie center Bryan Stork has stonewalled every tackle he's come across - though in fairness he has yet to tangle with big Vince or Sealver Siliga - but he's had to take a few laps with fellow rookie Jimmy Garoppolo for sloppy exchanges.  In fairness, these things generally work themselves out as camp progresses.

Halapio is struggling handling pass rushers
Incumbent center Ryan Wendell has had a decent time of it also, though the divide in athleticism between he and Stork is obvious - but the same can not be said for the battle at right guard, where veteran Dan Connolly is so far the better of two evils over rookie Jon Halapio in the weak spot of the line - and both could be ousted by the impressive showing of second year reserve Josh Kline, who is steamrolling everyone he faces...

...not necessarily a surprise as Kline did some quality work in spot duty and a couple of starts at left guard last season, and in the best-man-wins competition on the right, Kline could upset the apple cart and leave both Connolly and Halapio fighting for a reserve spot along the line.

Sebastian Vollmer is showing little ill effect from last season's broken ankle, and his nastiness was been on full display at right tackle, and he has even taken some reps at left tackle, showing better there than either regular left tackle Nate Solder and top reserve Marcus Cannon, who were both victims of Chandler Jones' repertoire of decisive moves - and it wasn't even close.

That said, everything seemed to come together on that final power drill, with the line shoving the defense backwards in run blocking, prompting Brady to lay down the "Hit the weight room" gauntlet.

Part 5: X, Y or Z? Labels mean little to enigmatic pass catchers

The biggest point of conjecture among Patriots' fans in this camp is the quality of receiving weapons that Brady is going to have to throw to - and while there have been the typical early-camp case of the dropsies, it's far too early to write off any pass catchers.

Those making their presence felt are steady veterans Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, which was to be expected, with Kenbrell Thompkins showing a significantly improved approach and coming down with some nice grabs while Josh Boyce is showing off the after burners on the outside and from the slot, catching everything thrown to him.
Boyce is making a move with speed and hands

Newcomer Brandon Lafell had some unfortunate drops early in the week, but showed good concentration once the pads came on over the weekend and had some acrobatic, one-handed catches - which is great, but Belichick would likely prefer the consistency of Amendola and Edelman to the circus catch.

The big news of course is the presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, whom the team is bringing along slowly after 2013's season of pain.  He hasn't worked much in the 11 on 11 drills, but in the agility training and individual drills, he does not look like a player who is coming off that torn ACL at the hands of Cleveland's TJ Ward last season.

That solves the dynamic tight end issue, and the Patriots have taken steps to take some of the focus off Gronkowski - and the only way to do that is to tweak the scheme, and in this case it looks geared to the power running game and play action - but many are unhappy that Belichick didn't continue his wave of the future thing and bring in a speedy "move" tight end to compliment Gronkowski - and can't seem to get past that to see the rainbow.

Part 6: Fantasy Island: A no-fly-zone where three and out is a way of life

The Patriots' secondary have been the stars of camp thus far, and it really doesn't take a wild imagination to understand why.

Revis is the star of camp
Darrelle Revis is the real deal folks - and not just in coverage down the field, which has been superb - but in the way that he's mixing it up with the receivers coming off the line.  Revis has always been aggressive in man coverage, but he's sticking so tight that he's pissing them off, which will come in mighty handy for frustrating the bejesus out of opposing pass catchers.

Sophomore Logan Ryan has stepped up to stake an early claim on the corner opposite of Revis - made easier by the absence of Alfonzo Dennard, though the way he's playing it may not have made any difference - while Kyle Arrington looks healthy and is making plays from the slot.

Brandon Browner is looking more and more like a nickle safety, offering tight coverage and redirecting routes to the inside where he is most effective, which bodes ill for recently re-signed Patrick Chung as that's where he figured to fit.

But perhaps one of the bigger surprises of this young camp is the improvement of third year safety Tavon Wilson, who seems to have followed up his success late last season and working with Revis in Arizona during the offseason into a spirited attempt to keep his roster spot - Duron Harmon is penciled in at strong safety, but Wilson is finally showing the play that cause Belichick to spend top shelf draft capital on him a few summers back.

Part 7: Talented front seven running on star power, health

Chandler Jones is straight up going off.

The third year defensive end appears to have reached elite status as a pass rusher as no one can handle him, particularly with that devastating inside move from the edge and the power display at the five-technique - and these are no slouches that he's going up against as Solder and Cannon have had a go at him to no avail...

Wilfork seems to have regained his lower-body explosion
...while the inside rotation of Big Vince Wilfork and Sealver Siliga are dominating the incumbents at right guard and center, which isn't so surprising, except for the fact that Wilfork is coming off a torn Achilles and Siliga has exactly eight NFL games under his substantial belt.

The return of Tommy Kelly from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list was an unexpected and pleasant surprise, but other that, the offensive line seems to be handling the three techs in camp.  This is the position where the coaching staff will be easing in rookie Dominique Easley, who is currently on the non-football injury list and not participating in drills.

Unexpectedly, big time bust Jake Bequette is giving Michael Buchanan a run for his money and looks to have added a few moves to his one-dimensional pass rush.  This is likely Bequette's last opportunity to earn a roster spot on the line so he appears to be pulling out all the stops while New Orleans Saints castoff Will Smith looks like just a guy at this point coming off an ACL.

None of the three starting linebackers have made a splash in camp, nor do they need to, as cornerback Brandon Browner and coverage linebacker James Anderson have shown up in both the passing game and run support, while the rookie linebackers on the roster are getting used regularly by the tight ends in the pattern, at one point Michigan product Cameron Gordon being trampled by rookie tight end Justin Jones.

Depth on the second level has been a concern coming into camp, and continues to be as none of the players vying for limited spots have stepped up and established themselves.

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