Since starting training camp on July 23, the Washington Redskins have practiced in shells and in full pads. They've held walkthroughs and collided in live drills. They've worked on fundamentals and practice plays scripted for the red zone. They've squared off one on one, seven on seven and 11 on 11.
Now comes an opponent that's more authentic than a tackling sled and quicker to rile up competitive fires than a teammate.
Coach Jay Gruden's hope is that three days of joint practice with the New England Patriots heading into the teams' preseason opener Thursday night at FedEx Field will challenge his players anew while giving his coaching staff another means of judging who's worthy of keeping on the 53-man roster.
Take Redskins offensive line coach Chris Foerster. While his starting five is fairly well set, Foerster has a glut of linemen jockeying for backup spots. With fewer than four weeks before the final cuts must be made, it's unclear whether Gruden will end up keeping eight offensive linemen or 10. Either way, Foerster must identify the contenders who are both the most promising and versatile.
"When you bring a different color jersey in, the intensity level automatically steps up a little bit," said Foerster, a proponent of the joint practices that will be held today through Wednesday at the Redskins' training camp in Richmond.
"Now, it's nowhere near the preseason game (in terms of intensity), which is nowhere near the regular season. And it's nothing like the playoffs. But it just paints a broader picture. You get a better evaluation of your players. Now, all the sudden, you've got to block a silver helmet and not a burgundy."
It's not the first time the Redskins have squared off against another team during training camp. The Pittsburgh Steelers served as their mid-camp measuring stick in 1980s and '90s, with the teams holding annual scrimmages.
But this is the first time the Redskins have scheduled a multi-day joint workout.
"You have limited numbers in camp," notes NFL Network analyst and former Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, "so you get more reps for your players because you're not hitting yourself."
It also helps break up the sheer monotony of camp, in which NFL players practice twice a day, six days a week, for roughly three weeks.
Some coaches also have strategic reasons for pitting their squads against specific opponents.
"If you're a 4-3 team, and you're going to play a bunch of 3-4 defenses, you may want to practice against a 3-4 team," Casserly said.
In the Patriots, the Redskins' defense will get to test itself against one of the league's more explosive offenses. In his 13 seasons as New England's starting quarterback, Tom Brady has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships. No NFL quarterback has started more playoff games (26) or won more (18) than Brady.
New England's defense is less imposing: 18th against the pass and 30th against the run last season.