What we learned from Pats-Eagles practices

PHILADELPHIA -- For many years, Bill Belichick opted not to have his Patriots practice with another team during training camp.

That's changed in recent seasons, as 2013 marks the second time in as many years that the Patriots will conduct joint practices with two separate teams during training camp, the first set of which came this week in Philadelphia with the Eagles.

While there's one school of thought that a team has enough work to do on its own during training camp, and that traveling four days in advance of a preseason game is a big effort during a critical stretch of preparation, it was clear in observing practice this week that both teams felt the sessions were productive.

Thinking big picture, the obvious benefit of practicing against a different team is to see new players, fresh faces, differing schemes and techniques. After nearly 10 days of practice back in Foxborough, it appeared that the Patriots were catching on to the habits of their teammates, something that can impact one-on-one drills and also 11-on-11 team work.

In Philadelphia, the Patriots' receivers got to see new defensive backs, their pass-rushers worked against different offensive linemen, and the special-teams units worked against the Eagles' core groups as well. The element of unpredictability added a wrinkle that each player -- on both sides -- had to account for.

There was also the competitive aspect to practices. Though there was no tackling and Thursday wasn't much more than a walk-through, it was obvious that players were excited to work against someone other than their own teammates. Perhaps the competitive atmosphere fueled Tom Brady's strong work, highlighted by a sensational Tuesday.

As Belichick alluded to early in the week, the joint practices weren't just beneficial for players, but coaches also. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia wore the headset during various team drills, which was good practice in advance of Friday's exhibition contest. Coaches also had the chance to converse during practice, an invaluable opportunity to share ideas and concepts.

More specific to the Eagles, practicing against them may prove to pay off for the Patriots throughout the regular season, even though the two teams do not play each other. The Eagles gave the Patriots extensive read-option looks during team drills, and though the dust has yet to settle on a pair of quarterback competitions in the AFC East, the Patriots could face three separate quarterbacks (twice apiece) who are capable of running the read-option. There's been buzz of read-option packages in New York and Buffalo, while Ryan Tannehill is probably the best athlete of any quarterback in the AFC East.

The game tonight will serve as a critical evaluation platform for the Patriots in their attempt to construct their 53-man roster, and, ultimately, coaches are looking for players who perform well when the stakes are raised. But regardless of the outcome of the game tonight, the Patriots have already put in a good week of work, and it's easy to understand the allure for Belichick to continue to take part in joint practices in the future.