Defense looks improved

The story of the day was the return of linebacker Brandon Spikes to team work.

We got the first glimpse of what should be an impressive linebacking corps, as Spikes manned the middle flanked by Jerod Mayo and imposing rookie Dont'a Hightower.

All three of these guys are big, physical and athletic playmakers.

They were dominant during the team’s goal line work, which included multiple stops for the defense. Mayo stepped up with a physical tackle to prevent a would-be touchdown.

Spikes blew through a block to blow up a run in the backfield. Hightower managed to deflect a Brady pass that would’ve been a sure touchdown.

As a whole, the defense looked faster and more physical than last season’s much-maligned group. They were bristling with enthusiasm, flying to the ball and gang tackling. Barring any major injuries this should be a difficult team to run against.

Secondary Concerns

The physical play of the front seven stood out yesterday, but the terrible play of the 2011’s secondary remains in the back of every fan's mind. This unit will be helped greatly if second-year player Ras-I Dowling can stay on the field. Dowling is a big physical corner who was good enough as a rookie to start (at one point winning a one-on-one goal line match-up with Brandon Marshall).

The knock on him coming out of college was his inability to stay healthy and, true to form, he got hurt in Week 2 and missed the rest of the season. He is healthy now and flashed his tantalizing potential in practice, holding up pretty well in one-on-ones with Brandon Lloyd.

If the Pats can keep him on the field, he could become a lockdown corner. They better hope so, because the rest of the secondary doesn’t look so good. Devin McCourty didn’t particularly stand out yesterday, while Kyle Arrington was repeatedly beaten by Wes Welker with relative ease. They don’t have much behind those three. At safety, injury-prone Patrick Chung and free agent addition Steve Gregory appear to have locked down starting jobs, with a number of so-so options behind them.
Wide Receiver Battle

This is a good problem to have. The Patriots probably have eight legitimate NFL receivers in camp right now duking it out for what will likely be six roster spots. The obvious locks are slot receiver extraordinaire Wes Welker and free agent pick-up Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd looks as comfortable as ever in Josh McDaniels’ familiar offense, and made the play of the day during one-on-ones as he made a one handed snag over the tight coverage of Dowling on a corner fade route.

Matthew Slater and Julian Edelman figure to make it due to their special teams value, leaving Deion Branch, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney to battle for the remaining two spots. My gut feeling is that Stallworth will be the odd man out; he has lost some of the explosiveness that once made him such a threat and doesn’t have the same uncanny chemistry with Brady that Branch and Gaffney have developed. Stallworth could help his cause on special teams, where he has been taking reps as a kick returner.
Offensive Line

It is hard to judge line play based on training camp, especially with three potential starters (Logan Mankins, Sebastion Vollmer and Brian Waters) not present. However, the offensive line simply has to play better than they have so far in camp. The line was overwhelmed by the defensive front every time they lined up in team work.

They created little running room and would have had Brady running for his life multiple times in a live setting. Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen and Nate Solder are all guys that figure to play a lot this year and more should be expected from them.

Likewise, the team can’t be ecstatic with how second-year tackle Marcus Cannon has looked so far. Cannon, who is filling in for the injured Vollmer at right tackle, has high expectations, but has struggled so far. Hopefully these guys will fare better when they see live action in a few weeks against the Saints.