FOXBOROUGH — After a couple of much-talked-about skirmishes last week in training camp, Patriots players said it was time to face off against some new faces.
They got that chance Tuesday, as the New Orleans Saints joined them on the fields behind Gillette Stadium for a full-pads practice that drew an overflow crowd, fans excited to see not just their own team but also one of the best squads in the NFC in recent years.
The 14,000-plus on hand weren’t the only ones who were quick to show their admiration: After practice, members of both sides were quick to offer praise to the other side.
Perhaps most effusive was New Orleans interim head coach Joe Vitt.
“This franchise that we’re going against is the Microsoft of our industry, what they’ve done,” Vitt said. “Bill Belichick is the coach of my era. He’s the Don Shula, the Bill Walsh of my era.”
High praise indeed.
“It’s always great when we practice against a class franchise like this franchise,’’ added Vitt. “We got in a lot of good work today.”
Vitt said the Saints’ previous experience of shared practices with New England (in 2010) made things easier this time around.
“I think there’s a lot of trust involved,’’ he said. “We know what we want to get out of each day. The biggest thing is the players trust one another — they know we can work tempo, angles to the ball, without beating each other up. Whenever you have that trust between two teams, I think it makes it a lot more compatible.”
New Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was raised in Grafton, got the benefit of having family on hand.
“I think the two organizations — from my standpoint, being new in New Orleans and having grown up with this one, two great organizations getting together, helping each other. And I think the players were terrific too,” he said.
Belichick, who flew with Spagnuolo and Vitt to the funeral service for Garrett Reid, son of Eagles coach Andy Reid, on Saints owner Tom Benson’s private plane earlier in the day, was also quick to compliment New Orleans.
“It’s great to work with the Saints,’’ he said. “They’re a great organization. I have a lot of respect for the ownership, with Mr. Benson and of course [suspended head coach] Sean [Payton] and Joe and his staff and players.
“We had a really good practice out there in terms of working with them and just getting better. [There are] a lot of things we need to improve on. They’re a real good football team, they do a good job.”
Players said the practice had a different feel — not necessarily more intense, but certainly a different kind of energy, different opponents against a backdrop of an appreciative crowd.
“It was a great atmosphere today. Obviously a ton of fans came out to watch practice,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who spent several minutes after the session talking with Tom Brady and their mutual throwing coach, Tom House.
“For us, it’s great to break up the monotony of training camp, always by yourself and that kind of thing, and come up for the opportunity to scrimmage against somebody other than yourself and really a great team.
“There’s not a team that’s won more games than the New England Patriots over the last decade. To have a chance to be around them, watch how they work, compete against new personnel and a new scheme is good for both sides.”
Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio acknowledged Monday that New Orleans would be a good measuring stick thanks to its “balanced and diverse” offense and “disruptive” players in the defensive front seven.
While they did fine in individual drills, the Patriots had some issues on both sides of the ball in full-team work, as Brady went just 7 for 16 with an interception in 11-on-11 work; after his interception, he stormed to the sideline, took a knee, removed his helmet and pounded it on the grass three times.Conversely, Brees went 18 for 26 with an interception during 11-on-11 work.
New England defensive players go against one of the game’s best in Brady every day, and Brees is also one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, with a solid young receiving corps.
It is beneficial to get “a chance to go against a different group of guys and getting a chance to go out there and compete,” said Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty. “I think we’re really trying to give ourselves a chance to get better out there.
“You know, going against our offense, you start to see the same things, and to see a new offense and a good offense with a lot of different weapons, I just felt like it was a good opportunity for us to come out and try to play well.”
With expectations for the Patriots players high, Belichick was surely ready to break them down after the shaky practice.
“We’ll take a look at things tonight and we have some situations and other things to build on tomorrow,’’ he said. “Instead of just playing one game against a team like this, we really get three goods days of work against them so we’ll try to take advantage of that and help ourselves get better.”