WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The New England Patriots’ arrival on the Greenbrier practice fields Wednesday signaled the start of a new phase of training camp for the New Orleans Saints.
Fans wearing black and gold and red and blue piled into the stands, making up the largest crowd at The Greenbrier since the Saints’ scrimmage Aug. 6. The fans were eager, of course, to see Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and everything else that comes with the Patriots, including an increased media presence and all the Deflategate questions.
By the time Brady and Drew Brees dialed in and started throwing, though, it became clear the real difference is on the field.
New England’s arrival looked like the beginning of an increasing workload for starters from both teams, a process that will continue through Saturday’s preseason opener between the teams and continuing to the third preseason game next week.
“There are a ton of things we need to work on, and when you get a different team, I think it prevents you from kind of falling into that going-through-the-motions routine that can happen,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I think it can bring out the best in a player and help build confidence, and it can do a lot of things.”
Up until now, Saints starters have gotten roughly an equal amount of reps as the second and third teams in practice. That won’t carry over into the regular season.
And a change was obvious Wednesday. With the Patriots on the field, Brees, Cam Jordan and the Saints’ top two units took 108 snaps in practice, dwarfing the time the third-team units got. Brees threw 22 passes in team settings, far more than he has in any practice so far.
“We had a lot of reps (Wednesday), and we’re going to have a lot of reps (Thursday), too,” Saints center Max Unger said. “Really, next week, too. We actually have a mock game next week, and that’s when you kind of assume that you’d take the majority of the reps.”
By extension, the intensity of practice rose to a level it hasn’t really hit on the Greenbrier practice fields yet.
A little bit of that is built in, the novelty and competitiveness of going against another team. The rest comes from the way Payton and Belichick designed the practice schedule.
“The way it’s set, it’s almost like it is game-like,” Brees said. “Their offense is on the field and they run plays, and then our offense (is on the field). We’re mixing personnel. It is coming from the sideline. We are having to communicate. Guys are having to go a bunch of consecutive plays, and they’re sucking wind. They have to suck it up. We have to go. It is very reminiscent of a game.”
New Orleans and New England, bucking the trend of brawls in joint practices around the NFL, kept things professional on the field Wednesday.
But there was a heightened sense of competition.
“Everybody’s juices are flowing a little bit more,” Saints running back Mark Ingram said. “You’ve got a different team coming in. You get some new work; you get some different looks from what we’ve been getting, different personnel from what we’ve been getting; and obviously, no one wants to go up against a stranger and look bad.”
For the Saints, the Patriots’ arrival comes at a time when the natural inclination for most players is to start winding down. The Saints will break camp at the end of this week and head home. At that point, it’s easy for players to start seeing the light at the end of the training-camp tunnel.
Bringing in another team — especially a team like the Patriots — ensures the Saints stay focused and raise their level of play as training camp gets ready to shift into a different kind of gear, a gear reserved for the regular season.
“Having them come in in the last two days is like putting a wall at the end of the tunnel, because at the end of the day, these are going to be two of our most competitive practices at camp,” tackle Zach Strief said. “So you’ve really got to grind through these and get better, and that was great work today — the best we’ve had so far.”