They are two of the most common phrases bellowed by the Patriots coaching staff during training camp practices.
“Stay on your feet!” running backs are loudly reminded as they slip through creases, cracks, and crevices while the big guys up front push, lean on, and shove each other.
“Let ’em go!” defenders are emphatically directed as they approach ball carriers with bad intentions. Instead, they pull up, tag the runner, or try to strip the ball.
Limiting contact during training camp is a way of preserving players for the long haul, with the bulk of live tackling normally reserved for joint practices and exhibition games.
As with everything in 2020, it’s been different, but Bill Belichick is confident that the contact players have experienced this summer will have them ready for the Sept. 13 opener against the Dolphins when the pads will be popping with much more vigor.
“The contact in the game is a little bit different, but we’ve dealt with really, I’d say, all kinds of contact,” the coach said Wednesday. “We’ve live tackled, we’ve tackled guys to the ground, but we’ve done it more of a one-on-one setting as opposed to game conditions.
“Now, we’ve done some in game conditions, too, we’ve tackled live as a team in a few selected drills, but not extensively. That’s for the safety of the players. We’ve had contact and we’ve tackled and the runners have taken contact with the ball in their hands and the tacklers have had to get guys on the ground like we’re going to have to do.”
After a camp slate that included a few full-pads practices and with another 10 days before the season begins, more contact work will be on the itinerary.
“I think we’ve prepared our players,” said Belichick. “I think they’ve had their opportunities to feel the contact and feel as close to game reps as we can without playing in a game.
“There’s another level that we’ll have to experience, but I think we’ll be prepared to take that next step, and then we’ll have to refine it from there. I don’t think it will be perfect, but I think it will be competitive and we’ll continue to work and improve on it.”
One area the limited camp tackling will particularly affect is the return game. The Patriots need to fill the kick returner role previously held by Brandon Bolden (opt-out), while punt returns were split by Gunner Olszewski and Mohamed Sanu last season.
Special teams tackling was not an area that was worked on, considering the high-speed collisions.
“That’s really where those guys excel, right, is in the open field with the ball in their hands,’' said Belichick. “Can they make the first guy miss? Can they gain extra yards in the open field with their return skills?
“How do they handle the ball with the decision-making with guys on them or fair catching and so forth, setting up blocks and showing their strength, their quickness or run instincts in a live setting as opposed to a team setting where generally we are tagging off?”
Belichick said the lack of live reps will make the evaluation process a bit tougher than normal.
“But I think we have a number of players that have shown promise in practice,” he said. “I think it’s a leap of faith to just go from practice to the game, especially at that position.”
It’s not his job
Belichick revealed that Julian Edelman, 34, once one of the top punt returners in the game, likely won’t be in the mix for those duties again this season. Edelman didn’t return any last season after being the primary guy for eight seasons. “I think that’s probably the right thing to do,” the coach said. “Although, we’ll certainly need his availability at some point, I’m sure.” … After full-pads practices Monday and Tuesday, the players had Wednesday off … Running backs coach Ivan Fears said Sony Michel put on some weight after offseason foot surgery but the third-year player worked hard to get back into playing shape. “He’s got fresh legs,” Fears said. “We have to beat on him a little bit more first, and then we’ll see what he has going. He’s coming back off after the first 2½-3 weeks of training camp. Hell yeah, he’s going to be fresh and quick.”
Knowing the language
Running back Lamar Miller, who said he’s been “getting his feet wet” this week, has an advantage in getting up to speed quickly because the Texans, his former team, have offensive similarities with the Patriots. “There’s definitely carryover,’' said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “There’s not that many places in our league that use the same terminology as we do, but certainly Houston is one of them.” … Offensive line coach Cole Popovich recently found out he’s related to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Cole’s father died when he was young, so he didn’t have extensive knowledge of that side of the family until he did some research about a year ago. He added that Gregg likely isn’t aware of the connection.
Jim McBride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.