Postcards from Camp: Day 7


Postcards from Camp: Day 7

Day 7 of Patriots training camp had the players in shorts and shells. Coach Bill Belichick said before practice that the team planned to "slow things down" a bit and he seemed to keep his word there as it was a pretty light session. There was no hitting, and things got done about 20 minutes earlier than scheduled. Even a chunk of the massive swarms of Patriots fans that had been attending camp seemed to take the day off as the crowd was somewhat sparser on what was a hot, muggy day in Foxboro.
THE WEATHERDid we mention it was hot? Like, really hot. Coach Bill Belichick said before Wednesday night's practice that the team had entered the "Dog Days" of training camp, and it certainly felt that way on Thursday. The temperature hovered around 90 degrees, and it was humid. There were a few clouds in the sky, but not enough to provide much in the way of shade.
WHAT THEY WOREJames Ihedigbo and Matthew Slater were still wearing those red "DON'T TOUCH ME!" shirts. Veteran corner Will Allen, who has been out for the last few practices, was spotted on the sidelines sporting a long-sleeved t-shirt, shorts and sneakers. He didn't participate today.
WHAT THEY DIDBelichick's press conference ran a little late so many media members missed the first few minutes of practice. But from what was shown on the big screen inside the stadium, it looked like it included some warm-up drills and stretching. We pick things up from there:
2:00-2:30The team was separated into groups to do position-specific work. The quarterbacks and receivers worked against no defense. Running backs worked on a drill to secure short passes and then protect against defenders trying to pry it loose. both offensive and defensive linemen did some work on the sled, while linebackers and corner backs worked on backpedaling into coverage.
2:30-2:45Quarterbacks, tight ends and running backs worked against linebackers and safeties on the goal line. Rob Gronkowski was a favorite target of Tom Brady's here, no surprise. Dont'a Hightower impressed with one pass breakup heading Gronk's way. Deion Branch served as defacto quarterback and threw passes to the other wideouts while they waited their turn to hop in. (He throws a a decent ball, in case you were wondering.) Then the receivers got their goal line work in. Britt Davis made a few nice catches, one in the back corner of the end zone over a cornerback whose number was obscured by other players as he ran back to the huddle. Eventually, everyone moved back to the 20 yard line to work on red zone situations. Shane Vereen showed some good quickness here.
2:45-2:50Special teams time. Kickoff and kick-return units both got some work in. On-side kicks were worked on with a couple of different groups of "hands team" guys, including Sergio Brown, Kyle Arrington, Brandon Bolden, Matthew Slater, Devin McCourty and Josh Barrett.
2:50-3:00Wideouts and quarterbacks worked on sideline routes against four or five defenders. Then they shifted to 7-on-7s. Aaron Hernandez has stood out all camp in all situations, and he did here once again. He got great separation out of his routes and seemed to be open on the majority of plays.
3:00-3:15Then it was on to 11-on-11s. This was when Brady started to show signs that today was not his day. He had one pass batted down by either Kyle Love or Vince Wilfork. Then he overthrew Davis near the sideline. Then he zipped a pass too hard and through Wes Welker's hands on a short bubble route. Then he had to throw a ball away with Rob Ninkovich in his face. Then he overthrew Gronkowski on a seam down the middle where Gronk had his man beat. (Take a deep breath.) He was 1-for-6 on the series.
3:15-3:25More kickoff work. Stallworth, Vereen and Ridley all worked in on returns. Brady and Hernandez threw to each other on the sideline as they waited to get back on the field.
3:25-3:40This was the hurry-up portion of the session. The offense wasn't at its sharpest, but it was an entertaining few minutes nonetheless. After one completion, Brady's bad day continued. He was picked clean by saftey Steve Gregory, ending No. 12's hurry-up run before it even really got started. Hoyer looked better as the pace picked up. He audibled at one point and found Jesse Holley on a long completion. The second offense got deep enough into the red zone where they worked on clock-management and setting up field goals without calling timeouts. This part of practice led to a pretty funny scene where Zoltan Mesko -- the holder -- would sprint toward the line of scrimmage screaming and waiving a white towel to let the offense know that it needed to hustle off as the field goal unit was coming on. Chris Koepplin looked OK kicking field goals. Hard to tell from the media's angle whether or not he missed any.
WHO'S HOTJulian Edelman is still catching everything no matter where it's placed: inside, outside, long, over his head. On one play, he made Sterling Moore look in desperate need of a GPS -- the corner wasn't even in the right neighborhood.
Aaron Hernandez continues to look as solid as any Patriots receiver -- tight end or wideout. He caught everything today and seems to get open at will. He also showed how versatile he may be when things get going for real as he and Brady worked together on their hand-off exchange.
Tavon Wilson had a good day after receiving praise from Belichick before practice. He had two picks. One came down near the goal line off of Brady. The other was off of Brian Hoyer. Intended receiver Matt Slater ran a lazy route, rounding it off at the end, and Wilson pounced. The back also broke up a pass between Hoyer and defensive-end-turned-tight-end Alex Silvestro.
WHO'S NOTHoyer looked a little Ryan Mallett-ish today in that he took forever to get rid of the ball. He also has a tendency not to get rid of the ball at all sometimes, instead tucking it down and running when he's run out of options. He has to lead Patriots quarterbacks in rushing yardage during 7-on-7s, but that's probably not what the coaches are looking for.
Brady misfired a bunch today. Look for a story coming on that later.
Poor Silvestro. He's having some issues with the switch to tight end. Belichick said the move from defensive end to tight end means Silvestro "doesn't have to report on every offensive play." The offensive plays on which he reported today largely went incomplete. The quarterbacks were looking for him often, seemingly trying to get him in some sort of rhythm, but most passes ended up rolling around on the turf.
The following guys did not practice: Tony Fiammetta,Tracy White, Nick McDonald, Jake Bequette, Matt Kopa, Logan Mankins, Jamey Richard, Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Lloyd, Jeremy Ebert, Visanthe Shiancoe, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard, Myron Pryor, Jonathan Fanene. Spencer Larsen also missed practice for the first time this camp. And no, Brian Waters had still not reported.
Early exits: Deion Branch jogged off the field at 3:08; Jabar Gaffney left with a bit of a limp at 3:15.
WHAT WE SAWAfter Dan Connolly's absence gave him some reps with the 1s Wednesday night, Donald Thomas was back with the 2s today.
Robert Gallery worked with the first offensive line group along with Connolly, Nate Solder, Dan Koppen and Marcus Cannon.
Brandon Spikes wasn't wearing the brace that made an appearance during Wednesday night's session after the fracas that started when Solder knocked him to the ground.
Ryan Mallett -- who's known for having a big arm but hasn't shown it off a whole bunch this camp -- showed nice touch on a wheel route to Vereen.
Steve Gregory had almost as good a day as Wilson. Aside from picking off Brady, he broke up two consecutive long passes that might have gone for scores had he not been in position.
WHAT THEY SAID"He can raise his voice from time to time. But we really listen to him so he hasn't had to flip out that much yet." -- Donald Thomas on offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's demeanor during camp.

Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans


Former Patriot Mike Vrabel named head coach of the Tennessee Titans

The Titans job was rumored to be the first pick of Josh McDaniels, but as details have come to light, that is not the case.

The Tennessee Titans have agreed to hire former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel as their Head Coach tonight.

The team publicly announced the hire tonight across all of their social media platforms.

Vrabel won the Super Bowl with the Patriots three times in the early years of the New England dynasty. 

Despite having limited experience as a coach, he has attracted much attention in this past offseason for openings across the NFL. He has just one season's experience as a coordinator. 

Vrabel steps in to fill the role of Mike Mularkey, who was fired just one night after many believed he was receiving an extension. Despite the rumor of the extension, Mularkey and the Titans agreed to part ways just one day later.


Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?


Who will be Patriots unsung hero Sunday?

FOXBORO -- We've hit on Tom Brady's hand. Over and over. And over again. We've also dissected just how good this Jaguars defense really is, and how Rob Gronkowski might be able to exploit it

But what about the games within the game? What about the so-called bit players who could make a significant impact in the AFC Championship Game? 

It seems to happen every year in the biggest games. No one predicted James White would put together an MVP-level performance in Super Bowl LI. No one saw Malcolm Butler coming - least of all Russell Wilson - in Super Bowl XLIX. And who would have guessed that Marquis Flowers, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise would've had key roles in helping the Patriots dominate the Divisional Round against the Titans?

Let's try to get out ahead of those storylines before the Jaguars and Patriots meet at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Here are five of our under-the-radar keys to the game: 

1) James Develin's incorporation into the game plan could seemingly pop up out of nowhere like a neck roll.
But if you've been following along this week, you know that it would be a good idea for the Patriots try to throw out of formations that employ their fullback. If Josh McDaniels figures out a way to keep Jacksonville's base defense on the field, that should give Brady all kinds of room to throw. That means getting Develin onto the field with Dion Lewis. It could also mean having Dwayne Allen (or Jacob Hollister) on the field with Rob Gronkowski. Two-back sets and two-tight end sets should have the same effect: The Jaguars will respond by leaving an extra linebacker and an extra defensive tackle on the field. (In all likelihood, run-stuffing linebacker Paul Posluszny would remain, as would defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. In sub situations, those players are more likely to come off, bringing nickel corner Aaron Colvin and pass-rusher Dante Fowler on.) That bigger stop-the-run grouping makes the Jaguars slower. When they're slower, they're less-equipped to defend the pass. Per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, the Jaguars allowed a quarterback rating of 99 and an average of 9.6 yards per attempt against offensive groupings with two backs, two tight ends, or both. Against three-receiver sets, they're much more effective, allowing a rating of 73 and an average-yards-per-attempt of just 4.9. One issue with Develin's usage could be - wait for it - Brady's hand. If it's clear Brady can't take snaps from under center, then the Patriots will either simply have to huddle up with Develin in the mix and align in some sort of spread look when they break, which they've done in the past. Or they could concede the threat of running behind Develin is non-existent if Brady can't get under center, and then you may simply see more two-tight end looks. Using tempo with this bigger personnel could also be wise. If the Patriots get defenders on the field they want to throw against, they could prevent the Jags from subbing by hurrying to the line of scrimmage. 

2) Joe Thuney's ability to handle power rushes on the interior could determine how smoothly the Patriots offense runs.
The Jaguars front is their biggest threat to Tom Brady. Jacksonville's coverage players are talented, but there should be windows to throw. If Brady doesn't have time to find the windows because of a dogged pass-rush, though, it won't matter. Thuney could be the key. Why? Calais Campbell, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, has seen 58 percent of his pass-rushing snaps come from the defensive right, according to Pro Football Focus. If that continues, he'll see his fair share of Nate Solder and -- in sub situations when he kicks inside -- Thuney on the offensive left. Along with the vastly underrated Yannick Ngakoue (12 sacks and a league-high six forced fumbles, but he's not a Pro Bowler or All-Pro), who rushes off the defensive right 77.5 percent of the time, Campbell helps form as imposing a duo as Thuney and Solder have faced all season. Campbell is the real-life response to the blue beings in James Cameron's "Avatar." He's 6-foot-8, with 36-inch arms, and if he can extend on Thuney, that's a one-on-one matchup that doesn't favor the Patriots. Thuney, who carries around a green notebook full of secrets to help him on game days, has been solid of late. He hasn't allowed a sack or a quarterback hit in his last three games, but he'll have to put together one of his cleanest performances of the season to keep Brady upright Sunday.  

3) Johnson Bademosi will have big shoes to fill in the kicking game. 
When Jonathan Jones suffered a season-ending injury against the Titans, that should thrust Bademosi - who was a healthy scratch last week -- back into the mix as a kick-coverage player and reserve corner for the Patriots. The Jaguars have a talented return man in Jaydon Mickens, and as a gunner, it could be on Bademosi's shoulders to make sure that the Patriots don't allow Mickens to make a game-changing play. With the focus on Matthew Slater, that should leave Bademosi with some one-on-one matchups to win on the outside. Why, you ask, is this important? The Jaguars are not a threat to consistently string together scoring drives offensively, so -- aside from scoring defensively, which they've been known to do -- they may need to exploit a breakdown in the kicking game in order to have a shot. "Mickens," Bill Belichick told this week, "as a returner, very explosive player...He's very, very explosive in the open field...They're a very explosive special teams unit."

4) For the second consecutive week, Marquis Flowers could play an important role in the defensive game plan.
His two best games with the Patriots have come against mobile quarterbacks, and Blake Bortles -- though not as athletic as Tyrod Taylor or Marcus Mariota -- would qualify. The Jaguars quarterback has recorded 123 yards rushing on 15 carries (an average of 8.2 yards per run) in two playoff games this season, and against the Bills in the Wild-Card Round, he actually ran for more yards (88) than he picked up through the air (87). Flowers has shown a knack for being able to mirror passers as he spies them from the second level, and it would come as no surprise if he was asked to do so again this weekend. The Patriots are a man coverage team. If you've watched closely, you've noticed they've played less true Cover-2 this season than they have in some others, partly because their corners are better-suited for man-to-man assignments than covering zones. By deploying Flowers (or Kyle Van Noy or someone else) as a spy, that allows Patriots defensive backs to play man-to-man on the back end. Without a spy, that would typically require more true zone in the secondary so that defensive backs could have their eyes in the backfield and spot when a quarterback takes off. If Flowers is tapped to spy again this weekend, he allows his teammates in coverage to play their game: Lock-down man-to-man.

5) Let's stick with the Patriots linebackers for this final key.
Discipline at the second level will be of vital importance against the Jaguars. Matt Patricia's unit should have little trouble stopping the run. It's a numbers game in the box, and if the Patriots commit enough resources to stoning Leonard Fournette, they should have success. Especially with the way Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Ricky Jean Francois and Trey Flowers have been playing of late. But the Jaguars are adept at using an opponent's aggressiveness against them. Whichever Patriots are at the linebacker level -- whether it's Elandon Roberts, Van Noy or Patrick Chung -- will have to be sure they read their keys and remain patient. Leaving Bortles wide-open throwing lanes is one of the few ways the Jaguars will be able to create chunk plays on Sunday, and if the Patriots are too eager to step up and fill lanes against the run, they could open themselves up to be stunned by the 23rd-rated quarterback in the NFL this season. The Jaguars passed on three of their first four plays from scrimmage against the Steelers in the Divisional Round. They picked up 53 yards on those three throws due in large part to Bortles' use of play-action.