By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Although he wore a mask and wasn’t seen constantly twirling a whistle, as in previous summers, Bill Belichick looked and acted the same on Wednesday as he wandered the fields behind Gillette Stadium.
Preparing for his 46th season in the NFL and his 21st as head coach of the Patriots, Belichick seemed completely in his classroom element. One period of practice he was on the near half of field 1, teaching defensive backs. Minutes later he was on the far half of field 2, pulling aside a linebacker following an 11-on-11 rep.
In between, when it was time to get from here to there, like the players the 68-year-old Belichick picked up his feet, jogging rather than walking.
What’s especially striking about Belichick’s instruction is that there often seems to be some give and take. He talks. He listens. He nods and extends his arms away from his waist, palms parallel, and offers one last coaching point.
Every so often, in the crowd-less environment of this year’s Patriots training camp, you can catch wind of what is being said. Not exactly NFL Films’ mic’d-up quality. Still, a great opportunity nonetheless. In those moments, it’s remarkable how Belichick simplifies the complex.
For eight straight years of my own, attending Patriots’ camp, it’s always one of the first things I notice. What’s more, it’s not like Belichick is just making rounds to visit high draft picks or likely starters. He’s just as liable to do it with the 80th guy on the roster as the first.
As you’d expect, every rep of every practice marks a teaching moment. From the head coach and his assistants.
Maybe most of those take place during film review. Sometimes, as in twice in the past two days for one rookie, they seem to happen right there on the field.
On Tuesday, tight end Devin Asiasi appeared to get too upright on a block. Reminded by a coach to have a lower pad level, he came right back and held his ground in pass protection, earning praise. A day later, a similar sequence unfolded.
We all know the learning curve is steep for rookies in the NFL in any year. This season, without spring practices and during a compressed training camp, it’s especially difficult . As Belichick recently said of the rookies, “They’re in deep water, turbulent water, and it’s going to get rougher.”
The ability to consistently receive coaching and apply it right away, thereby avoiding repeat mistakes, is a key to not just treading water but making it to September swimmingly.
No Details Too Small
The Patriots have a ball security drill they frequently conduct during camp. It pairs defenders with offensive skill players who catch a short toss, turn and run upfield. Meanwhile, their defensive teammates try to punch the ball loose.
On Wednesday, the Pats ran a different type of drill. A defender dropped down for a push-up, popped to his feet and had to take on a ball carrier. It seemed designed to help the defender form good fundamentals while running to the ball and breaking down in proper tackling position.
Meanwhile, in addition to improving as open-field runners by making cuts, ball carriers were reminded of their first priority — protect the ball.
“Ball security,” a coach hollered. “High and tight!”
Again, it’s seems like such a small thing. But, as the cliche tells us, little things make big things happen.
After two days of padded practices to begin the week, the Pats worked Wednesday in shorts and so-called “shells.” The schedule seems to set up some more physical work the next day or two, just over three weeks away from the Sept. 13 opener against the Miami Dolphins.
Here’s a few things this observer will be focusing on — aside from the obvious quarterback competition — entering the weekend:
— After a 3-for-5 start to the week on field goal tries, rookie kicker Justin Rohrwasser hasn’t attempted any kicks on either of the main fields the past two days. He’s generally been working on a lower field, out of media view. Will Belichick try to put him in some “pressure” spots in the days ahead, as the lone place kicker in camp? In the past, field goal periods often announced the end of practices.
— Receivers N’Keal Harry and Mohamed Sanu invested much-publicized time with personal coaches in the offseason after each experienced an injury-affected 2019. Harry didn’t practice on Wednesday. So the first step is getting back out there, hopefully by Thursday. Thereafter, will one or both develop a visible rapport with Cam Newton and/or Jarrett Stidham? Newton’s enjoyed success with bigger receivers (see Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess in Carolina) and worked out with both after signing with New England.
— How will rookie linebackers Josh Uche and Cassh Maluia progress in pass coverage? Uche, a second-round pick, made a lot of big plays behind the line of scrimmage at Michigan. He had 15 1/2 sacks his final two seasons as a Wolverine. As a pro, Uche will have to defend the pass as well as rush the passer. Maluia, a sixth-round pick, dropped into coverage underneath and intercepted Newton on Wednesday. Another backer in a similar boat is Terez Hall, a 2019 undrafted free agent and practice squad member. On Wednesday, Hall found himself matched up with diminutive running back J.J. Taylor, who made a terrific contested catch from Stidham.
You can hear Bob Socci on the call of the game on every game day for the New England Patriots, right here on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can also hear him on his own The Gridiron And Beyond podcast at 985TheSportsHub.com.