FOXBOROUGH — There was a lot of clatter, but there were no real big thumps when the Patriots donned full pads and conducted their first workout of training camp in full gear Sunday morning before a crowd of about 7,000 at the upper fields behind Gillette Stadium.
For linebacker Brandon Spikes, who prides himself on making the splashy big hit, it was an opportunity to knock some rust off his game as the team ramped up the intensity level on the third day of camp.
“Oh man, it’s like night and day to me,’’ Spikes said when asked about the difference in the intensity level when the team practices in full pads. “The OTAs, and the guys running around in shorts and T-shirts, that’s fun and it’s football. But, then again, you put the pads on and that’s when you see the real guys come out and compete.
“Like I said, it was fun, but we’ve got a long ways to go.’’
That much was evident by the scarcity of big hits on the first day of pads.
“Exactly,’’ Spikes said. “That’s what I’m saying. People are still thinking and trying to get the defense together and stuff like that. You’re a little rusty and there’s a big difference once you put the helmet and the pads together and stuff like that. You’re a little rusty, that’s all.’’
Rust notwithstanding, coach Bill Belichick said the first day in pads gave the coaching staff the first opportunity to begin evaluating personnel based on their performance in game-type conditions.
“Certainly [it] will help us in our evaluations of some of the bigger linemen and people like that, feel the play and working those positions,’’ Belichick said. “We’ll see how some of our guys, with their work in the offseason whether it’s gain strength and explosion and power and all that, how that all transfers onto the football field in a functional [manner] or evaluating our younger players to see what their capacity is for that.
“We’re at the start of that long evaluation period.’’
Spikes said he looked forward to one drill in particular.
“It was just the inside [run], doing nine-on-seven, it was all run and that’s one of my strengths,’’ said Spikes, who played in 15 games last season (14 starts) and ranked second on the team with 128 tackles (84 unassisted). “But personally, I don’t think I had a great day today. Got to get better tomorrow, definitely.’’
Asked why he felt his performance was sub-par, Spikes replied, “It was just a few false steps, a few bad reads, stuff like that. It’s just practice. Thank God, it’s just practice. I can correct that the next day.’’
Spikes did take pride in the fact the defense forced running back Stevan Ridley to fumble twice during the inside run. As penance for his turnovers, Ridley was forced to run one time up and down the length of the field.
“We’ve been getting coached on that, trying to separate the player from the ball,’’ said Spikes, who last season was credited by the team with a career-high five forced fumbles. “We got a few today, so hopefully we can continue to keep doing that, get turnovers, make plays, and get the ball over to Tom [Brady].”
Test for Mankins
One of Logan Mankins’s challenges on the first day of full pads was the opportunity to go one-on-one with nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
“It makes you a ton better — to win against Vince you have to do everything right in one-on-ones,’’ said the veteran left guard, who was selected to make his fifth Pro Bowl appearance last season. “Because he’s all-go, straightforward, and he’s a big strong man. If you don’t do it right he’s going to push you back, or if you don’t get your hands in the right spot, it’s over for you. He makes you really focus on your technique.’’
The fact that Mankins, who was limited to 10 starts last season, didn’t have to hobble off the field afterward was a positive. Mankins tore his right anterior cruciate ligament during the 2011 regular season and didn’t have it repaired until after the Super Bowl, and suffered a left medial collateral ligament sprain late in the 2011 season.
“I feel good,’’ Mankins said. “I feel really good so far, so hopefully that continues.’’
Was it a vast improvement over last year?
“Yeah, way better than last year,’’ Mankins said. “Last year I was still running on one leg, so this year it’s nice to be healthy.’’
Second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower said there was a noticeable difference for him in his second time around at training camp, where a year ago he made such an impression he won a starting job and played in 14 games (13 starts).
“I feel like everything’s kind of slowed down — mentally — not necessarily physically, but definitely mentally,” said Hightower, who made 75 tackles last season along with four sacks, three passes defensed, and a pair of fumble recoveries, returning the first for a touchdown in his first career NFL start vs. the Titans.
“I’m able to see things a little bit quicker, knowing the playbook and knowing the difference between studying NFL film and college film, with different plays and different philosophies,’’ Hightower said. “But I’ve still got great guys around me. Vince and [Jerod] Mayo still help me out constantly. So as long as I stay under those guys, I think I’ll be fine.’’
The Patriots have been experimenting with a camera mounted on the quarterback’s helmet, just to gain a different perspective on what he sees — and is focused on — when he steps up to the line of scrimmage. “It’s something we haven’t done before, so we’ll take a look at it and see how effective it is or what we can get out of it,’’ Belichick said. “I’m not sure exactly how effective that will or won’t be, but it’s something we’re trying that’s a little bit new. We’ll see how it goes.’’ Backup QB Ryan Mallett gave the camera-mounted helmet an enthusiastic thumbs up. “We use it to see where our eyes are looking just to get our eyes right to start the play,’’ Mallett said. “It’s pretty good. I don’t know if we’re going to continue using it or not, it’s up to the coaches.’’ Asked if he had seen footage from the camera, Mallett replied, “Yeah . . . it’s kind of like [being on] a roller coaster. You get dizzy.’’ . . . Most cameras at Sunday’s practice were trained on actor Robert Duvall, in the area to shoot the film “The Judge.’’ Duvall stopped by about an hour into practice and was escorted onto the field by owner Robert Kraft, who introduced the actor to his son, Jonathan, the team’s president, several coaches, and players such as Wilfork, Mallett, Brady, and Tim Tebow.