Camp Observations: Day 7

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots held their annual in-stadium practice for season ticket-holders on Wednesday evening, with 22,633 turning out to watch the full-pads practice.

Here are some observations:

Branch, Ninkovich limited. Receiver Deion Branch, who did not participate in team drills on Tuesday, was on the field and in uniform for the start of Wednesday's session but was not spotted by the latter portion of practice. This could indicate that Branch is dealing with an injury issue. In addition, defensive end Rob Ninkovich remained limited for a third straight practice, only taking part in positional agility drills.

Kopa banged up. Offensive tackle Matt Kopa was slow to get up and was limping after one play during 11-on-11 work. He left the field with medical staff and did not return.

Solder scuffles, shines. Offensive tackle Nate Solder kick-started what became a large fracas between the offense and defense when he shoved linebacker Brandon Spikes, who was already on the ground, after the whistle during an 11-on-11 play. But that wasn’t the only reason Solder caught some eyes on Wednesday night. He showed a greater level of physicality than what was witnessed last season. Solder plays with excellent bend in his stance, allowing him to fire out at the snap, play with body control when he engages defenders and exert power in his blocks. He moved well to the second level in the running game, knocking over linebackers on multiple occasions.

Ridley decisive. Running back Stevan Ridley looks to be out front in the Patriots’ running back competition, flashing a number of traits that make him an intriguing package. Here’s one that continues to show up: his decisiveness. Ridley wastes little time in finding his path between the tackles, generating forward push from the time he takes the football from the quarterback. That, along with his improved ball security (he’s yet to fumble in training camp), are evident already.

The good and bad of Ryan Mallett. Quarterback Ryan Mallett’s up-and-down camp continues, as he concluded his practice with an errant throw right into the frame of linebacker Bobby Carpenter during an 11-on-11, which he easily snared for an interception. The ball looked like a force. What stands out most about this throw was that on two occasions earlier in practice, Mallett took what amounted to a coverage sack, holding onto the football. While it would be easy to chide the second-year quarterback for not making a throw without defenders in his face (these occurred during 7-on-7), it’s important to keep in mind that in game situations we’d likely decry a forced throw. Without knowledge of the play call and offensive concept, it’s tough to tell what went awry on those plays, but perhaps Mallett’s patience is a sign of development.

Offensive line in focus. With Dan Connolly missing the practice for unknown reasons, guard Robert Gallery slid up to the top unit, alongside center Ryan Wendell. Veteran Dan Koppen remains as the second center on the field and looked frustrated on Wednesday night, getting into small scuffles with linebacker Dane Fletcher and safety James Ihedigbo. He also had a tough time handling pass rushers in one-on-one drills. Gallery also has generally struggled in that drill in recent practices.

McCourty squares off with Davis. Once again the receivers and defensive backs squared off in one-on-one drills. Devin McCourty lined up against Britt Davis, the Patriots' biggest receiver on the roster (6-foot-3, 215 pounds). McCourty had a sufficient effort against Davis, but didn’t shy away from physicality at the line of scrimmage. Every rep matters in practice, but this matchup was particularly noteworthy with the Patriots scheduled to face a number of big receivers in the opening weeks of their schedule, highlighted by Kenny Britt (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) of the Titans in Week 1 and Larry Fitzgerald (6-foot-3, 218 pounds) of the Cardinals in Week 2. Although Davis isn’t nearly of the caliber of either of those players, reps for McCourty against a bigger receiver are good practice for regular-season action, when he figures to draw some of the opponents’ top targets.

Wilson, Arrington time the blitz. The defensive backs worked some blitzes, and a pair of players stood out with both their timing and force: rookie safety Tavon Wilson and slot cornerback Kyle Arrington. Timing blitzes is difficult to teach, and both showed some solid instincts.

Coordinators put on the headsets. For a team period featuring the offense against the defense, coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia put on their respective headsets. Never too early to practice such details.

Nonverbal communication. With practice being held on the field of Gillette Stadium, the media found itself looking on from the press box, a few hundred feet up and behind a set of windows. It was interesting to observe the nonverbal communication taking place. That’s an area that defenses need to be especially adept in, and a few players stood out from this vantage point: safety Patrick Chung and defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Justin Francis.

Love throws a beauty. Defensive tackle Kyle Love executed the move of the night during one-on-ones, using a club-rip to dust past Koppen. Love thrust his right forearm to Koppen’s left side, forcing him off his center of gravity, and ripped through his body with his left arm. Textbook interior rush.

Bulman impresses. Early impressions on defensive lineman Tim Bulman: He shows impressive linear strength. He locked out on his offensive lineman during a one-on-one, displaying good ability to play with his head up and feet underneath him, while the strength to shed his block and make a play. His linear power and frame (6-foot-4, 281 pounds) are reminiscent of former Patriots defensive linemen Bobby Hamilton (6-foot-5, 285 pounds), an underrated performer for many seasons.

Davis steps up. With Brandon Lloyd absent and Branch a minimal participant, it gave an opportunity for the less-experienced receivers to seize the opportunity with additional reps. Britt Davis stood out. His night was highlighted by a tiptoe catch over Tavon Wilson and Ross Ventrone in the corner on the end zone. Nice night overall.

Barrett intrigues. Josh Barrett stepped into a defensive role for the Patriots last season, albeit for a short stretch of games. This year, he looks more like a core special teamer and that seems to suit his skill set. Barrett’s size, strength, speed and aggressiveness continue to pop when watching practice.

Other notes. Rob Gronkowski looks about 100 percent from this view and was tantalizing in beating double coverage near the goal line for an easy score. … Partner-in-crime Aaron Hernandez was once again a nightmare to cover, slipping past and around defenders. … Kyle Arrington got physical again in one-on-ones. Although not the biggest guy, he plays big. … Brandon Bolden has a nose for the end zone. … Patrick Chung has had durability issues throughout his career, but he’s not afraid to play physical and throw his body around. … One note that is a continuation thought from previous practices: Some players have a nose for defending screen passes. Former Patriots Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi did. It looks like top draft choice Dont’a Hightower does too.

Attendance report. Players not spotted on the field: fullback Tony Fiammetta (unknown); receiver Brandon Lloyd (unknown); tight ends Daniel Fells (leg), Visanthe Shiancoe (unknown), and Jake Ballard (ACL); offensive linemen Dan Connolly (unknown), Brian Waters (did not report), Jamey Richard (concussion), Sebastian Vollmer (back), Logan Mankins (ACL), Nick McDonald (unknown); defensive linemen Jonathan Fanene (unknown) and Myron Pryor (shoulder); linebacker Tracy White (unknown); cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring); safety Will Allen (unknown). ... Players in T-shirts and shorts: receiver Jeremy Ebert (leg), offensive lineman Markus Zusevics (pectoral) and safety Nate Ebner (unknown). ... Players remaining in red jerseys: receiver Matthew Slater and safety James Ihedigbo.