The third week of training camp is in the books for the Patriots, after Friday night’s 25-21 exhibition win over Tampa Bay at Gillette Stadium. The game came at the end of three days of practices with the Buccaneers, and just as he did after New England’s practices and game in Philadelphia a week before, Bill Belichick called the days well-spent.
“Last night was a really good end to a good, productive week for our football team,” Belichick said during a Saturday afternoon conference call. “Coaches and players got a lot out of the practices with Tampa; it certainly helped our coaching staff in terms of thinking and reacting in game-type situations.
“The players did that too: a lot of situations came up in the game that were good for us to learn from. So I think that’s the most important part of the process and the game, is us moving ahead as a football team, guys making improvements individually, guys that are working together being able to communicate and operate as a team in those groups or units, and ultimately our overall organization as a team — substitutions, different situations that we have to be able to handle or manage as a team we learn from.
“Some we handled better than others. But 10 penalties is definitely a lot more than last week against Philadelphia, so we’re going to have to tighten that up. In the end, it ended up being a very competitive game, probably the major difference in the game being the interception that Logan [Ryan] returned for a touchdown. But Tampa’s got a good football team; a lot of good players, they’re well-coached, it’s a great situation for us, and we learned a lot from it.”
Ryan, a rookie cornerback from Rutgers selected in the third round, has steadily been making strides.
“I think he’s improved in a lot of areas. Obviously, he had a good career, was a good player coming out of college,” Belichick said, “but working against players at this level is an adjustment. His techniques, his recognition, and of course in the secondary communication is such a big part of the game, no matter who you play for or what you’re playing, just being able to communicate with your other teammates back there in the secondary, there’s not much margin for error.
“That’s important for every player, especially young ones, to understand where their help is, know how to handle different formations, tight receivers, bunch receivers, slot, no slot, whatever it happens to be. But he’s worked hard, he’s been durable, he’s been out there, he’s gotten a lot of snaps, and he continues to improve with those repetitions. He’s definitely making progress. Showed some position versatility by playing both inside and outside for us over the course of camp, so he’s helped himself.”
There are several players in the mix at safety, and nearly all of them have gotten time together, particularly in the first two preseason games, as Devin McCourty has not played after recovering from shoulder surgery (although he has not missed a practice).
Along with McCourty, veterans Adrian Wilson and Steve Gregory, second-year player Tavon Wilson, and rookie Duron Harmon have worked together in the backfield at different times, which offers some advantages but also disadvantages, Belichick said.
“I think there have been a lot of positives and I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement; there’s a number of things we need to work on to get better,” he said. “We had several good plays back there and made some good adjustments and there was a few that we didn’t get that we need to get. So one of the good things about working a lot of people is you get to see a lot of different people, and at some point, whenever those combinations come back up again, there’s a familiarity. But at the same time, it’s harder for a couple of people to get good and comfortable with each other as much because of the rotation that’s going on.”
But Belichick said a decision has to be made “fairly soon” on those rotations heading into the regular season.
One of the major factors in settling on who gets the most playing time will likely be communication.
“I think all those positions down the middle: safety, middle linebacker, center, quarterback — a big part of each of those jobs is communication, working with other people beside you, or in some cases in front of you,” Belichick said. “Being able to control things from the middle of the field, by calls or adjustments or whatever decisions that those respective decisions have to make, that’s a part of all of those spots. And absolutely, that comes into play. You really can’t play those positions if you aren’t able to effectively do those things.”
A big part of communication, he added, is confidence and experience, and having the conviction to persuade others that the decision or call you’re making is the right one.
On their feet
The Patriots had a second kicker on the roster in the spring, but Stephen Gostkowski has been the only one in training camp. Through the first two preseason games, Gostkowski is 2 for 5 on field goal attempts.
But Belichick expressed confidence in the eight-year veteran.
“I think our overall field goal operation needs to be better, and he’s a part of that, but so is the snapper and so is the holder. We’ve had three different snappers and two different holders in camp and in the preseason games,” Belichick said.
Again, a decision will be made soon, Belichick said, on the entire operation, meaning returning snapper Danny Aiken or rookie Mike Zupancic will be last man standing, and a call will be made between punters Zoltan Mesko and Ryan Allen.
“As it relates to [Gostkowski] specifically, I think he’s had a good camp. He’s worked hard and he’s in good condition. He’s kicked the ball well and hit the ball very solidly and consistently. I know that he’ll continue to work hard to do everything that he can, and so will the other people involved in the operation — snapping and holding, however that turns out. I’m confident that he’s one of the best kickers in the league.”