The Cowboys donned full pads today for the first time at San Antonio. The early Sunday morning practice saw Dez Bryant and Josh Brent, the first and last Cowboys draftees this off-season, make attention-grabbing plays. In Bryant's case, the spectacular seems almost pre-ordained. He dazzled at the team's mini-camps and he's continued to thrill in the Alamodome. His consistently exceptional play, in contrast to Roy Williams thus-far consistently Roy-like play, suggests that the rookie may make a push for the starting lineup sooner rather than later this campaign.
In Brent's case, the impressions are smaller, but every bit as welcome. He joined the organization just last week after being selected in the 7th round of the supplemental draft. If he builds on the quickness and interior rush savvy he demonstrated this morning, the Cowboys may have another 7th round nose tackle find.
Back to the Balaclavas
The morning began as most Wade Phillips practices do, with a special teams drill. Position coach Joe DeCamillis and John Garrett worked with the punt coverage team, breaking the unit into two discrete groups. DeCamillis worked with the line, schooling the snapper and his blockers on proper spacing, proper first steps and correct releases off the line of scrimmage once the punt has been hit.
Down the field, the gunners worked in pairs and with cones, familiarizing themselves with the proper technique for evading edge blocks without getting pushed off the playing field. When the units merged, one of the groups wore colored balaclavas on their helmets and played the rush team, to expose the coverage groups to flesh-and-blood blocking. The drill went no farther than releasing off the line, but we got a taste of what the punt return game could be like -- Dez Bryant, Titus Ryan and incumbent Patrick Crayton all took turns fielding Mat McBriar's kicks.
Day Two Install
The offense expanded its personnel grouping packages a little more this morning, adding the 11 set (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) to the 21 and 12 sets practiced yesterday. The Cowboys continued to practice plays from those two sets as well.
In the initial practice phase, the Cowboys rans red-zone plays from these sets. As is common in this part of the field, the offense worked on runs and pass plays which got the ball into the receivers hands quickly and tried to gain yardage with runs after the catch. The play menu showed a lot of crossing routes underneath higher routes, screens to the backs and receivers and tight end seams.
On the personnel side, the Cowboys showed two varieties of the 11 set. The team re-deployed with last year's trio of Roy Williams and Miles Austin, with Patrick Crayton in the slot. The Cowboys also used the package they unveiled in mini-camps, moving Austin into the slot and setting Bryant outside of him.
After the offense and defense finished their group work, they met in the north red zone for a 9-on-9 drill, which used no receivers or cornerbacks. The offensive line, tight ends and backs worked against the d-line, linebackers and safeties. There were no passes, so the element of surprise disappeared. Everybody knew runs would be called, so success depended on will.
No tackling was allowed in the drill, and the units were mostly staggered (1st offense played against the 2nd and 3rd defenses, while the 2nd O got the 1st defense, and so on) which gave us a chance to view young challengers against the veterans, but very little chances to see 1s against 1s.
When the 1st units did square off, for all of perhaps four plays, the gains were minimal, in the three yard variety. When the 2nd defense rotated in, the gains increased. John Phillips took out Jason WIlliams on one lead draw, which helped create a deep running land for Felix Jones. The gains were all in the five-yards plus range when the backups were defending.
After a brief break, the ball was placed on the far 40 yard line and the offense and defense went 11-on-11. Again, no tackling was allowed. The first offense got first crack at the 2nd team defense, and Tony Romo opened hot. He just missed Roy Williams on a go route up the left sideline against Orlando Scandrick, but found Dez Bryant on a twelve-yard square in on the following play which the rookie took another eight yards or so upfield before contacting a safety. Marion Barber found a deep gash off right tackle on a draw play before Romo round Crayton on a deep out up the right sideline. Jason Hatcher made a stand for the 2nd D on the next play, stringing out a Barber toss right for a minimal gain. Romo was 4-5 on his passes and had plenty of time to scan the field, as his starting OTs handled 2nd OLBs Brandon Williams and Victor Butler with ease.
The second offense then rotated in, as did the first defensive unit. The play suddenly tilted in the defense's favor, though Bryant did shake Terence Newman on the right side, after running a smoke route. Apply the necessary cautions, however; since this was a no-tackling drill, Newman played ole, with Bryant. It's hard to say how big a game Bryant would have made were Newman trying to bring him down.
My vantage point gave me a solid look at 2nd year man Robert Brewster, who mans the right tackle spot behind Marc Colombo. Brewster handled the power rushers effectively, though he did yield a bit too much ground to Marcus Spears on an early rep. Brewster was caught in no-man's land, however, when Ware started hard upfield, then planted his left foot and countered hard inside the youngster. Brewster was left flat-footed, but I've seen many veterans left flailing by this move. I'd like to see more reps from Brewster,but he doesnt' look overmatched here. RT was his primary position at Ball State, and the Cowboys seem to have settled Brewster here for the time being.
Another Rusher on the Nose?
The third defense then worked in against the first offense and here the newbie Brent made some plays. On a pass call, Brent surprised Andre Gurode with an explosive takeoff and a swim move which put him cleanly past the center. Gurode had to grab Brent's arm to yank him back from Tony Romo. Romo completed an out to Jason Witten but Gurode would have been flagged had the play been official.
Brent tried the move again, but Gurode handled him the next couple of times, the second time with help from Kyle Kosier. Later, when the units rotated back into play, Brent used a spin move to penetrate deep into the pass pocket. Gurode kept him off Romo, but the rookie got close.
Brent's series brought back some pleasant Oxnard flashbacks. In '06, Jay Ratliff made an impression by getting under guard Marco Rivera's skin. Ratliff flustered and frustrated the vet so often that Rivera one day reached his limt and took a swing at Ratliff. Brent has only two practices under his belt, and miles, no a couple of time zones to cover before he makes this team, but he showed why the Cowboys took the gamble on him last week. He's girthy, with a thick mid-section and thighs, but showed explosiveness off the snap. He disrupted the pass pocket this morning, against a Pro Bowl center and merits closer attention.
The final rotation in the 11-on-11 session saw Bryant close a strong day with a diving catch up the left sideline beyond a lunging Mike Jenkins. While Jenkins rolled on the turf, Dez hopped to his feet and nonchalantly loped the last fifteen yards or so into the end zone.
Contrast this to Roy Williams' day. I should apply the same standards to Williams as I do Bryant or any other player,. It is day two after all. But the early impression is same-old, same old. Williams gets open and makes the catches on balls in his area. He's also sprinking the grabs with a couple of drops, the type which appeared in his game last year.
The Dez Bryant anointing oil remains firmly under lock and key, but the distance between Williams and Bryant appears small, at least to my eyes. To paraphrase the baseball sage Satchel Paige, "don't look behind you Roy, somebody might be gaining on you."
-- Sean Lee worked with the first team today, with Keith Brooking taking a break. Lee was always near the football and always had Reggie Herring near his earhole; the Cowboys are trying to shorten Lee's learning curve as much as possible.
-- Curtis Johnson keeps making his way to the football. He's a long shot, because he's got the 2nd year OLBs Williams and Butler ahead of him, but he keeps appearing in my notes. He won't cede this roster spot easily.
-- Tony Romo is laser sharp at all levels in the middle of the football field right now. And he's not off by much on his misses to the outside.
-- Felix Jones is now listed at 220 lbs. and he's looks thicker. I don't see any loss of explosiveness, but it's hard to say with the contact so limited for the running backs.
-- Rookie Scott Sicko is being eased into the TE/F-back role. All his reps the first two days are on the line of scrimmage, as a "pure" tight end.
-- The defensive backs participated in a strange drill early during practice which required them to field rolling exercise balls, the big red types people use to stretch their back muscles.