In some ways, the preseason opener between the New England Patriots and Washington Redskins is very much an afterthought.
For the regulars, the real work has already been accomplished. The teams went head-to-head over three days of joint practices this week at the Redskins training camp facility, running drills for nearly every scenario one might face in a game. For Tom Brady, Robert Griffin III and the rest of the first-teamers, those sessions are more valuable than the modicum of playing time they'll get on Thursday.
"Let's face it," New England coach Bill Belichick said, "there's no team in the league that's going to have their starting offense and starting defense on the field on the final drive of the game in preseason like it's going to be in the regular season."
So the Patriots and Redskins practiced that very situation on Tuesday. They also went through extensive red zone and third-down permutations during a practice that lasted 2 hours, 45 minutes in searing midday heat.
On Wednesday, they played a game of Pretend Ball, complete with a faux kickoff and downfield drives at a walking pace. The purpose was the get the players accustomed to running onto the field with certain personnel groups.
"This was a great opportunity to come out and compete against another team and get a feel for what they're doing, see how we react to different coverages and fronts on offense and defensively," Washington coach Jay Gruden said. "A different scheme, different route concepts and runs and no-huddle. It was a great experience."
Gruden said his starters will play about eight to 10 plays Thursday, maybe a little more "depending on my satisfaction." Brady and the Patriots' first-team offense played 16 plays — a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives — in New England's preseason opener a year ago.
Among those sitting out for the Redskins will be receiver Pierre Garcon, safety Ryan Clark and safety Phillip Thomas — all nursing hamstring injuries. Also sidelined is defensive end Jason Hatcher, who is recovering from knee surgery. Gruden said he is targeting the third preseason game for Hatcher's return.
Washington's prize offseason acquisition — receiver DeSean Jackson — is also unlikely to play. Jackson limped off the field during a drill Wednesday and had his left ankle iced and wrapped. Gruden said Jackson "got cleated" and "twisted his ankle just a hair."
Jackson also missed the full-pads Fan Appreciation Day practice on Saturday with soreness in his legs.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski remains out as he recovers from knee surgery. Gronkowski has been limited to non-contact drills and did not take part in the joint practices with the Redskins.
The success of joint practices around the league adds fuel to the debate over the value of preseason games, but most of the players on the fields this week were actually looking forward to the chance to play under the lights. Third- and fourth-stringers who didn't get many snaps Monday through Wednesday will get plenty on Thursday long after the starters have departed. Most are fighting for roster spots, and coaches will be anxious to see how they perform under true game conditions.
"Emotions are running high, most definitely," said Washington running back Silas Redd, an undrafted rookie who's shown enough promise to put him in the mix to become one of Alfred Morris' backups. "But it's football, and I can't put too much pressure on myself. I have confidence in my abilities, and I plan on going out there and doing my thing."
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