Perry's five Patriots mini-camp observations: Who's building momentum?

Perry's five Patriots mini-camp observations: Who's building momentum?

FOXBORO — With Patriots mini-camp now in the books, let’s highlight a few of our observations from the team’s three days of work... 


All eyes were locked on Tom Brady last week as he undertook his first spring practices with the team. Fair or not - because players are in shorts and tees, and because this isn't thought of as a competitive camp - his every throw was closely scrutinized. The results? Fine. It certainly didn't look like he'd taken two months off. He also didn't exactly light the world aflame. He was fine. We tracked his play through the first two days of minicamp here and here. On Day 3, it was a mixed bag. Brady sailed three passes early in a 4-on-3 period - the last of which, intended for Chris Hogan, forced Brady to half throw his arms in the air out of frustration. Later in the practice, he had another attempt to Hogan broken up by Ryan Lewis, and another pass landed incomplete when he threw behind Rex Burkhead. Brady had a handful of very accurate throws as well, including a long pass dropped by Jordan Matthews, a deep strike to Jacob Hollister fit in between defenders, and a low and accurate strike to James White at the goal line where only White could get it. So, in summary, how'd Brady look, a question I've heard several times from Patriots fans the past few days? He was fine, but even he would probably admit there's plenty to fine-tune, as there always is in spring practices. The difference this year is he's left some of that fine-tuning for his teammates to handle without him. 


As is the case with any player - Brady and Rob Gronkowski included - judging performances at this time of year is perilous work. But people are hungry for information. They want to know how these players look, and so we do our best to relay what we can while providing all the important qualifiers: there are no pads; many practice periods are not competitive - even when the offense and defense align across from one another; this isn't real football. That said, Gronkowski looked spry. He caught what was thrown to him, even passes that were a touch off the mark. And almost every completion in an offense-versus-defense period resulted in some kind of celebration. It was a little over the top at times, but consider Gronkowski's answer to a question I asked him at the end of his press conference last week: When you don't feel good, the game can be "awful"; when you do, the enjoyment is "off the charts." He clearly feels good, and he doesn't care who knows it. That's excellent news for the Patriots. Don't be surprised, though, if when the competition ramps up a bit in training camp defensive players don't fire right back with wild celebrations of their own. This has happened in the past, when the offense and defense -- especially when Gronkowski is involved -- try to one-up each other with the post-play reactions. Bill Belichick has often let that stuff go, unsurprisingly, as it can't help but contribute to the competitive nature of the sessions. 


While Brady will garner the most attention of the three Patriots quarterbacks, Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling are worth watching closely as well. If only because how they play in training camp and preseason could shine a light on how the Patriots opted to handle that position in this year's draft. By waiting until the seventh round to draft a quarterback in what many considered a deep class at that position, they passed on what could have been an opportunity to take one in the first few rounds. They had two first-round picks to play with, and signal-callers from our "Prototypical Patriots" series lasted into the fourth round. Belichick said back in 2014, after the team drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, that he didn't want the Patriots to be like the Colts when the Colts lost Peyton Manning to injury. Should anything happen to Brady in 2018, the decision to go with Hoyer and Etling behind Brady will obviously be revisited. Both Hoyer and Etling fumbled on Day 3, leading to laps for both, and both had accuracy issues at points.


Even though Belichick is always quick to point out that spring work is more of a "teaching camp" than a "competition camp," that doesn't mean that there aren't consequences to how players handle their responsibilities on the field. Belichick sent the entire Patriots offense for a lap after a substitution penalty on Day 3, then gathered the team around him for a few moments before getting back into the practice. Dante Scarnecchia was also unafraid to let players have it, tearing into the left side of his line - guard Isaiah Wynn and tackle Trent Brown - on Day 2. And Brian Flores could be heard from across the field admonishing players, and briefly pulling one linebacker from a practice period when an assignment was botched. This is how business has been done in New England for a long time now, and players understand it. It's interesting to see how that method is viewed in Detroit with Matt Patricia now running the show. 


Jacob Hollister missed Day 1 for undisclosed reasons, but he was among the standouts on Day 2 and 3. He showed a good connection with Brady in the reps they took together, making impressive catches over the two days despite close coverage from the likes of Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon. He also shook rookie linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley in a 4-on-3 drill that had his offensive teammates roaring...Bentley's work in the pass game, outside of that rep on Hollister, wasn't bad. A self-proclaimed "thumper," he is viewed as a traditional "Mike" linebacker and could project to the NFL as a player who sees the vast majority of his work on first and second down. His instincts in the passing game, though, flashed on occasion in minicamp as he got his hands on passes on multiple occasions. He's seen some work alongside Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower this spring, and he could compete with Elandon Roberts as a middle-of-the-field presence in base packages...The cornerback spot opposite Stephon Gilmore will draw plenty of eyeballs in the last OTA session open to reporters on Thursday. Jason McCourty did not take part in team work in mini-camp, and Eric Rowe often worked across other corners last week, leaving undrafted rookie JC Jackson to take on the bulk of the reps with Gilmore. Jackson seemed to hold his own, breaking up a pair of passes on Day 3. With seventh-round rookie Keion Crossen rehabbing an injury, Jackson and Lewis both picked up valuable reps. If everyone's healthy, there could be a good competition brewing between young Patriots corners that carries over to training camp. 


Signature Plays: Hoping the defense falls for the slip screen

Signature Plays: Hoping the defense falls for the slip screen

We've already taken a look at a handful of go-to offensive concepts for the Patriots. There was the two-back stretch, the smash route, the post-wheel and the high-low crosser. Today, we'll focus on yet another key offensive play for the Patriots, one they broke out in the Super Bowl when they needed to spark a drive: the slip screen. 

There were points last year when the Patriots weren't thrilled with their production in the screen game. The assignments weren't executed perfectly. The timing was off. The production simply wasn't there. 

"Our screen game hasn't been as productive as we need it to be," Bill Belichick said on a conference call in November. "We need to, obviously, coach it better and execute it better. We're not getting enough out of it. It's disappointing."

But they stuck with it. Their offensive linemen are required to be athletes. (Just ask Dante Scarnecchia.) Their backfield was loaded with backs who can catch and make defenders miss in the open field. The screen game still has a chance, the thinking went. 

And in the biggest game of the season, when the Patriots needed to get a drive kick-started after going down 15-3 in the second quarter of Super Bowl LII, they turned to their screen game again.

In the fifth entry of our "Signature Plays" series, one that identifies some of the Patriots' favorite concepts in key situations, we'll take a look at how many elements are involved in one of New England's slip screens - and why, with the personnel the Patriots have in 2018, it should be a staple for their offense again.  


THE CONCEPT: If an offense can get a defense flowing in the wrong direction, there's going to be an opportunity for a chunk play. If an offense can get a defense flowing in the wrong direction twice? That's gold. 

That's what a slip screen can do. By countering a defense's aggressiveness - the Eagles had an aggressive, relentless front that helped make them Super Bowl champions - the benefit of a play such as a slip screen can actually be twofold: First, if a big play is created, there's some immediate offensive gratification there; but second, a big play on one screen might help temper an opposing pass rush for the remainder of the game. 

The Patriots got the Eagles to pursue upfield hard on the first play of their drive midway through the second quarter. But they also got Philly's defense to pursue horizontally on a fake that ended up taking multiple defenders out of the play. 

THE PLAY: The Patriots aligned in a two-by-two formation with Tom Brady under center and Rex Burkhead in the backfield. On the opposite side of the line, the Eagles went with their standard single-high safety coverage on first down. They appeared to be in Cover-3 zone. 

Phillip Dorsett aligned wide to the right side of the formation with Danny Amendola in the slot. When Dorsett went in motion, the slot defender over Amendola took off to mirror the motion and help balance out Philly's defense. 

When Brady snapped the ball, he faked a handoff to Burkhead and then faked an end-around run to Dorsett. The Patriots have run so many of those jet-sweep types of runs in recent seasons, that the Eagles respected it. Not only did one defensive back mirror Dorsett's motion, but the fake to Dorsett appeared to help hold a pair of Eagles defenders on the offensive left side of the field. 

That's exactly what the Patriots were looking for since Burkhead was about to slip out to the right, into a wide open area of the field. 

One key to this play is the block of the right tackle -- in this case Cam Fleming. He needs to be a little soft here. Why? Because if he stonewalls his man at the line of scrimmage, that clogs things up for Burkhead. Again, he's slipping out to the right. So the right tackle has to bait his man into getting up the field, which Fleming does here. With the Eagles shading to Dorsett's motion, and with the left defensive end climbing up the field, the seas are about to part for Burkhead.

Not only does Burkhead have space to run, but he has a wall of bodyguards to escort up up the field. Shaq Mason, David Andrews and Joe Thuney have all freed themselves of the clutter at the line as Brady makes his throw. Because the motion did its job, it'll be a while before any of the big bodies have to throw themselves around.

The first block made is by Shaq Mason on safety Malcolm Jenkins, who read the dummy motion and flowed to the ball correctly. Still, Jenkins has no shot against Mason and is smothered. 

Then it's up to Andrews and Thuney. Backside linebacker Nigel Bradham flows to the ball, but Thuney gets in Bradham's way just enough to eliminate him. Andrews, meanwhile, has no problem blocking boundary corner Jalen Mills. 

But Burkhead wasn't done even as his first layer of protection was strewn about. He had another line of defense further down the field. Chris Hogan, who began the play aligned wide left, made sure the corner assigned to his side of the field was walled off. Then Amendola, who feigned a deep crossing route but was really focused on safety Rodney McLeod all along, made sure the deep-middle man would be a non-factor. 

The result was a huge gain that eventually ended in a Stephen Gostkowski field goal. 

THE PLAY IN 2018: Burkhead is back in 2018, though several Patriots backs could find themselves on the field in screen situations. James White and Sony Michel could both be in the mix for this play moving forward. Other key players return as well. Brady, obviously. Plus the three-man interior that moves well enough to make these types of plays possible. The Patriots should begin the season with Marcus Cannon as the bait-and-screen right tackle on these calls, which is an upgrade. And if the Patriots can swap in Julian Edelman for Amendola -- Edelman is as feisty a blocker as his teammate-turned-division-foe -- they should have the right mix to continue to rip off the occasional big gain with their slip screens. 


Perry's Patriots Signature Plays series

Perry's Patriots Signature Plays series

What's made the Patriots so successful for so long? Continuity. As part of that, we take a look at a handful of go-to offensive concepts that they'll likely turn to again this season with old and new personnel. Click here for the full series.