Giardi: Patriots embracing competition in joint practices

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Giardi: Patriots embracing competition in joint practices

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, West Virginia – Tom Brady barked his cadence loudly before tapping his foot once. His slot receiver, Julian Edelman, released quickly off the line of scrimmage, getting on to Houston cornerback Jonathan Joseph in a snap. Joseph tried to get his hands on Edelman in an attempt to gain balance and leverage. The Pats wideout wasn’t having any of it, using his arm to fend of Joseph’s right hand, then turning his shoulders, creating even less surface space for Joseph to grab. Scrambling to gain control, Joseph opened his hips slightly. Huge mistake. Edelman planted off his inside, left foot and cut hard toward the sideline. Joseph got turned around completely, leading to an easy completion and plenty of running room. 

Why is this noteworthy? Well aside from Joseph being one of the best corners in the AFC, it highlights another reason why joint practices are a critical part of Bill Belichick’s formula. Prior to the session with Jacksonville last week, Edelman and his fellow receivers were finding less and less space to operate against the Pats defensive backs. Yes, those guys get paid too, but after a while, there are no secrets between teammates, especially as we get deeper into training camp.

“That’s the great thing about these practices,” said Edelman. “You have an opportunity to get out of training camp…it’s almost like you’re in school and you go on a field trip. You may be learning things but it’s like 10 times better than when you’re in class. It’s the same thing with joint practices. You get to go out, hit someone new, use your techniques that you’ve been working on for so long against someone new, and see how they stack up.”

That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not. Houston’s defense is as good as you’ll see and Edelman and the rest of the Pats offense discovered that for the better part of the 2-plus hour practice Tuesday. But there were moments, be it in the aforementioned example featuring Edelman and Joseph, or later, when Chris Hogan ran by both Joseph and Kareem Jackson some 45 yards or so down the field to reel in a beautiful thrown bomb by Brady. Stephen Gilmore, Malcolm Butler or Eric Rowe would have known how quickly Hogan can get even and then go by you. Joseph and Jackson did not.

“It’s great to be able to have this,” said Brandin Cooks. “Last week, it was Jacksonville, this week now having a great defense in Houston. All it’s doing is just sharpening your game. Not having the same people in front of you, having the mix and the feel for the competition that we’ll be seeing all year round, I think it’s a great thing we’re doing.”

Edelman had a different way to describe it. He was in full storyteller mode (maybe that has something to do with a certain book he wrote with one Tom E. Curran).

“It’s the brother syndrome,” said Edelman. “You go out, your mother is not around, you’re with your brother and all day you hang out and you guys end up beating each other up. When you get to go out and play with someone else, it’s a little different. You get to have fun, and take pride on that, and you’re actually closer with your brother who’s there with you and you work harder together as a family.“

Based on how uneven the offense was on day one, I’d bet the two chief babysitters of this family - Belichick and Brady - will be asking for even more work from the skill position players. And there is no better time to do - and discover what works and what doesn’t - then in these sessions. Right mom?

Belichick on poor NFL offensive line play: It's hard when you can't practice

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Belichick on poor NFL offensive line play: It's hard when you can't practice

FOXBORO -- When the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA limited the number of padded practices that teams could organize, it was seen as a win for player safety. And it probably was. But the shortage of padded reps has had other ramifications that is hurting the on-the-field product. 

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When Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked about what is becoming billed as an offensive-line-play epidemic in the NFL, he told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that it's hard to expect linemen to be able to execute their techniques when the amount of time they have to practice those techniques is so limited.

"I just think in general, fundamentally it’s difficult to play on the offensive and defensive line," Belichick said. "You’re playing a contact position with pads, and you’re practicing it without pads the majority of the time. That usually develops a lot of bad habits, and a lot of the techniques that a player would have the chance to work on and improve with pads, that opportunity just isn’t there without pads. So, it’s hard to improve at those positions when, a lot of times, you’re practicing techniques that are really not the ideal technique or, in some cases, incorrect, and it just develops bad habits, especially on the offensive line.

"I think that . . . without being able to practice, favors the defensive players a little more, whereas the offensive unit has to work together and be able to block things at more of a game tempo with pads and penetration and combination blocks and things like that. It’s just hard to simulate those and hard to get the timing of those when you’re just standing up watching each other without pads on a lot."

The Patriots are in pretty good shape. They have an offensive line unit that returned all five starters from last year's Super Bowl-winning squad. They have two experienced tackles. They have three athletic and intelligent interior offensive linemen. The results in 2017 haven't been perfect, but how many teams around the league would get on their hands and knees and beg for a group like the one in New England?

Take a look at Seattle, where one of the best quarterbacks in the game resides. According to Pro Football Focus, he has the third-worst offensive line in the league when it comes to pass protection, and in two games the Seahawks have scored 21 points. 

The worst pass-blockers in the league? They currently reside in Houston, where starting left tackle Duane Brown is still holding out for a new contract. 

There are multiple factors that are impacting line play in the NFL. Coaching could be one. College players coming into the league from spread programs with no pro-style offense experience could be another. 

But practice time is right up there near the top of the list, if not right at the top, according to Belichick.

"I mean, look, we’re all coaching under the same rules, but I think it’s harder, especially at that position, to improve when you really can’t practice your skill," Belichick said. "It’s like, you go out to the driving range and hit drives and hit balls, but you can’t go on the putting green. And then, to think that your putting is going to be at the same level as your driving when you can’t really practice it, it’s not really realistic.

"But, again, all teams are operating under the same set of rules, so it is what it is. But, it’s hard. It’s hard at that position. It’s hard to tell a guy, ‘This is what you should do,’ but he really can’t go out and practice it."