Fisticuffs, Gronk's injury and more: Observations from Camp
Monday's practice pitted Pats DE Chris Long against his younger brother, Bears OG Kyle
At this point, I'm beginning to think my presence at Patriots training camp might be bad luck. Last week, I attended the first of two joint practices with the New Orleans Saints...the day that Rob Ninkovich tore his triceps muscle and Julian Edelman left practice after seeming to tweak his surgically repaired foot.
Today, I once again made the trek down to Foxboro, this time to see the Pats practice against the Chicago Bears. Once again, practice saw a key member of the offense leave early with an apparent injury. Rob Gronkowski pulled up after his first rep of 7 on 7's after "landing awkwardly" according to Mike Reiss (I missed it, as the Patriots offense was on the further field from my seat in the bleachers). The big tight end never grabbed any specific part of his leg, leaving us to speculate on what the injury could be, but he disappeared to the lower field where rehabbing players run their condition after talking to head trainer Jim Whalen. After about 10 minutes out of sight on the lower field, Gronk walked under his own power to the locker room.
The circumstances suggest that Gronk's injury is most likely a tweaked muscle or a cramping situation due to the heat rather than a serious setback, but that is pure speculation. Until we hear anything definitive on Gronk's status, Patriots fans will justifiably be holding their collective breath.
In other injury news, neither Jabaal Sheard nor Shae McClellin were present at today's session. As a result, Trey Flowers got a chance to build on his preseason momentum with a lot of first team work opposite Chris Long. Both defensive ends flashed throughout practice, putting regular pressure on the Bears quarterbacks.
Julian Edelman was present and looked like his normal self during 1 on 1's, absolutely roasting one unidentified Bears defensive back deep during the drill. However, Edelman didn't take part of any of the 11 on 11 snaps, and spent a portion of that time running from sideline to sideline on the further field from the action. Another player to be present but not participate in team work was Malcolm Mitchell, who wore full pads and a heavy duty brace on his recently dislocated elbow. Mitchell warmed up with the team but disappeared soon after to the lower field to get in conditioning work with his fellow injured players. It was also noteworthy that Chris Hogan is no longer wearing a red no contact jersey, as he is apparently fully recovered from a shoulder injury suffered earlier in camp.
Other injured players who were spotted but did not participate were Danny Amendola, Tre Jackson and Rob Ninkovich. Both Amendola and Jackson warmed up with the team, wearing a jersey and shorts (no pads for either). Amendola watched some of the 11 on 11 drills from the sidelines.
Butler ejected for fighting Bears receiver Alshon Jeffrey
On any day without an injury scare to Gronk, a fight nearly turning into a full team brawl would have been the highlight of the day. It was a fascinating back-and-forth battle throughout practice between the Bears talented receivers and the Patriots deep defensive backs group, and tempers eventually boiled over during 11 on 11 red zone work. The play that sparked the fight was a goal line run, with the bigger Jeffrey attempting a bullying block on Butler. The two remained engaged physically beyond the whistle, with things escalating after Jeffrey gave Butler a shot to the face mask. Butler shoved back in retaliation, drawing the attention of several Bears and it was on from there, with players from both sidelines getting involved.
The Patriots have long had a strict no fighting policy under Bill Belichick, which was enforced by Butler being sent off the practice field as soon as the skirmish had been broken up. Jeffrey remained on the sidelines for the Bears, but didn't take another competitive rep for the rest of the day.
One light-hearted moment came from Butler's brawl, as Bears Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long, standing far away from the fracas, playfully "held back" his brother Chris from the fight. Kyle seemed to be referencing a moment from the 2013 season when Chris (a member of the Rams then) ran onto the field to pull his brother away from a scuffle.
Bennett mixes it up
Martellus Bennett was clearly going to be a story going into these joint practice sessions after his public comments ripping former teammate and current Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. He was involved in a second skirmish during special teams work, with Bears defensive lineman Lamarr Houston throwing him to the ground before Nate Solder got involved to break it up. Interestingly enough, the PFW guys spotted Bennett at one point after the fight talking smack and walking towards a group of Bears players before Belichick himself physically got in the way to break up what could have escalated into something much bigger. As the PFW guys noted, the Bennett situation was very different from Butler's fight, as it would normally take something personal (like, say, a former teammate ripping his old quarterback) for things to get that feisty during field goal practice.
The coaches clearly weren't happy with the amount of fisticuffs at practice, as the players went through some rugged conditioning work at the end of practice. The entire Bears team and Patriots offense took to the notorious hill behind the fields for some wind sprints, while the Patriots defense went rep after rep pushing a 7 man blocking sled the full length of the field. As a former (bad) high school football player, I can attest to how not-fun that must have been in the mid 90s heat.
Brady works with the 1's
Pats fans who have been following the splitting of reps between Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo have been wondering when Jimmy Garoppolo would get more work with the first team offense. That didn't come today, as Brady worked nearly exclusively with the first team offensive line (Solder, Thuney, Andrews, Mason, Cannon), while Garoppolo was protected by the second string group of LaAdrian Waddle, Josh Kline, Bryan Stork, Ted Karras and Cameron Flemming. It was hard to differentiate between the first and second stringers amongst their skill players due to the amount of injuries on the top of the depth chart, but Garoppolo did seem to get more time with Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan. Garoppolo, however, did do most of his work against the Bears second string defense, while Brady worked against the Bears starters.
Both quarterbacks had uneven days, as the defense generally got the better of the offense for both teams, but a highlight for Garoppolo was a masterful two minute drill. The third year quarterback calmly marched the offense down the field, showing complete command of the offense and down-to-down situations, before capping the drive off with an absolute strike to Devin Lucien in the back of the end zone. Brady's two minute drill merely yielded a field goal, as the offense stalled after getting a chunk play early in the drive on a throw to AJ Derby. The highlight of Brady's day came in 7 on 7's when he dropped one perfectly to Brandon Bolden deep down the sideline. Bolden never had to break stride or even adjust his hand placement to reel in the 40-something yard bomb.
Defensive backfield smothers the Bears top weapons
It was a very active day for the Patriots pass defense, with some beat reporters tallying as many as 15 passes defensed during team drills. I didn't keep count, but the Patriots physical press coverage clearly allowed them to disrupt a number of the Bears passing plays, even after their top corner left the field for the day. Standouts on the day included Justin Coleman, Cre'von LeBlanc and Jamie Collins, who repeatedly showed off his athleticism by leaping to knock away passes over the middle. Coleman had tough coverage for most of the afternoon and got his hands on a few passes, memorably dropping a near interception after making a good read to explode in front of a hitch route.
LeBlanc, who caught the attention of fans with a highlight reel interception in the preseason opener, seemed to have moved his way up the depth chart, earning reps with the 2's ahead of the likes of Darryl Roberts and Jonathan Jones. He took advantage with a feisty performance, getting his hands on several passes, including one in the end zone. The Pats also had a couple of interceptions on the day, with Kamu Grugier-Hill taking one from former Patriot Brian Hoyer and Jordan Richards reeling in a deflected pass in the "opportunity" period at the end of practice from third stringer David Fales. Both would have likely turned into defensive touchdowns had the play been live. Rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts also pulled in a one handed pick on special teams when the Bears attempted a fake field goal passing play.
Both teams got a decent amount of running game work in during 11 on 11s, certainly more than the Pats did when working with the Saints last week. It was noteworthy to see Tyler Gaffney getting work with Brady and the first string offensive line, as he and LeGarrette Blount seemed to get equal opportunities with the first team. Without live tackling, it was hard to evaluate who performed better as a ball carrier, but Gaffney showed decent route running and hands during one-on-ones and 7 on 7s. Despite getting that work with the first string, both Gaffney and Derby (more on him in a second) played during the "opportunity" 11 on 11s with Jacoby Brissett.
It was hard to see, as the drill took place in the far corner of the further field from the bleachers, but the Patriots offensive lineman seemed to struggle during their one-on-ones against the Bears revamped defensive line. They spent a decent amount of time working on 2 on 2s as well, working on picking up and passing on assignments as the defenders work different stunts and switches, and seemed to struggle with that as well. The offensive line didn't perform great during team work either, giving up several would be sacks, including a memorable one on which Marcus Cannon was absolutely dusted by a unidentified Bears defender around the edge.
AJ Derby seemed to get the majority of the first team reps vacated by Gronk's unexpected absence and had a bit of an up and down day. He did make a few plays, including the aforementioned solid gain during Brady's two minute drive, but also drew Brady's ire after dropping a pass that he didn't appear to expect. Derby was also the target of a Brady throw that could have been picked, as the quarterback seemed to miss the free safety breaking on the ball. The fact that Brady threw that ball despite tight man coverage suggests that he saw Derby's impressive preseason debut, during which he demonstrated his ability to go up and get the ball in contested situations.
With Gronkowski out of the picture, James White became noticeably more involved in the passing game during team work. He flashed his excellent route running and solid hands and was productive throughout. He could be a big part of the offense early on if Dion Lewis isn't ready to begin the season as an active participant.
The Bears twin tower receivers (6'3, 218 pound Alshon Jeffery, 6'3", 216 pound Kevin White) made an interesting challenge for the Patriots defensive backs, one that they largely answered during one-on-ones. Jeffery did use his size advantage to make a leaping grab over the head of Butler at one point, but both Butler and Logan Ryan used their physicality to "win" reps against both of the big receivers. While they (and Justin Coleman) were successful during the drill, Cyrus Jones had a rough go of it. On one rep, he simply pulled up and stopped running full speed after getting roasted deep on a double move.
Second year safety Brock Vereen (yes, former Pats running back Shane's little brother) was not on the practice field. It turns out the 23 year old has retired from football.
Also not present was Nate Ebner. The Olympic rugby star was officially activated onto the 90 man roster today, but will likely need some time to get into "football shape" after slimming down for the Olympics Rugby 7's tournament.