Postcards from Camp: Day 7

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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.

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."