The full pads returned Monday afternoon and the contact increased, giving observers their first extended view of the Cowboys first offense versus the first defense. The increased hitting also started the process of shaking out the competition in certain key areas.
As is the Cowboys custom, they started with special teams. Joe D's guys worked for a third straight session on punt coverage. It's impossible to get strong reads on special teams units before a single pre-season game is played, but if you want an early view of rankings (and hence of chances to make a final roster) consider the nine players who drilled with snapper L.P. Ladouceur and punter Mat McBriar today:
The backup linebackers, safeties, fullback, tight end and receivers. The traditional core of coverage groups come from this bunch. With so many of the perennial Cowboys core special teammers gone, the new core should come from this bunch.
Before DeCamillis worked with the full unit, John Garrett took the receivers and other gunner candidates to the far end where they practiced covering fair catches inside the ten yard line, putting one man in front of the returner and another behind him, in the event the rival let the ball hit the ground in the hopes of a touchback. He then had an assistant lob volleyballs towards the goal-line, so his guys could practice knocking the ball back into the field of play.
When the units broke up, the offense worked on three receiver packages, and today the stock three WR set had Dez Bryant wide and Miles Austin in the slot. This has become the primary personnel package and suggests that this will be the grouping when the games count.
While the offense worked on its nickel sets, the defensive back seven worked extensively on coverage in the nickel set. The 2nd team D put on the colored balaclavas and the inside linebackers and five d-backs practiced against a variety of sets from the 11 and 12 sets, with three WRs and two TEs with one of the TEs split wide. Interestingly, the first team nickel LB duo consisted of starters Bradie James and Keith Brooking.
When the 2nd team nickel drilled, Sean Lee and Jason Williams replaced Brooking and James, respectively. Reggie Herring gave Williams an earful for missing a couple of switches. Things would get better for Williams later in the session.
The team then began another 9-on-9 drill, which had the offenses squaring off against the defenses, sans receivers or corners. The plays were exclusively runs, giving the coaches a chance to see how the line matched up when the defense knew what was coming.
Early results show the left side of the O-line is currently the power side. Doug Free shows a regular ability to turn and push Igor Olshanky, no easy feat. He flipped Olshansky wide on a stretch play in this drill, creating a huge cut back lane inside for the back. Later, he hooked Igor inside on a toss play that produced acres of space for Felix Jones. Kyle Kosier looks good next to him.
The third unit looks lost. It got extensive reps against the 2nd and 3rd defensive fronts, but could not generate a consistent push. Most of the runs went to the right, behind Pat McQuistan and Sam Young, and most of them were turned back. Phil Costa looks overmatched at center and Will Barker is running hot and cold at left tackle. Only LG Mike Tepper produced consistently in the entire sequence. He and Barker did a solid job sealing off the backside on several plays. Tepper also pulled right and kicked out OLB Curtis Johnson on a counter. Tepper was the only player on the 3rd unit to get a decent push on every down. That said, he still has a lot of work to do. He lunged into his blocks in the practice-ending 11-on-11 drill, and wound up on his knees. Tepper needs to maintain his balance to get out in space and sustain his blocks on linebackers. He still looks like a long-shot, but looked a bit better than his rookie peers today.
Later, the team repeated the split-screen drills from yesterday, with the D-backs and skill position guys going one-one-one while the linemen went one-on-one in a pass rushing drill on the opposite end of the field. I focused exclusively on the rush drill and think an o-line totem is emerging:
The starting five of Free, Kosier, Gurode, Davis and Colombo. Gurode gave me a chicken-egg moment when Junior Siavii beat him with a swim move, just as Josh Brent did yesteday. Is Siavii better with his hands and rush moves, or is Gurode vulnerable to this type of interior rush. The correct answer, if camp history provides any guide, is likely "both."
Barron and Bright. Barron can move with Demarcus Ware. I'd like to see him get more reps, but Barron worked at both LT and RT today and his play inspired a lot more confidence than the other OTs. Bright is well ahead of Costa and got a few turns at RG today.
Holland. He's nothing special, but he's the one backup guard with experience.
Needs more work: Brewster: He looks like a rookie, good on some plays and shaky on others. He'll anchor well on one rush, then give too much ground on the next. His lost rookie training camp has him behind. The numbers are in his favor and for all I know a couple more weeks of reps against the Spencers, Spears and Hatchers will improve his game. Having Barron on board is huge, because I don't think Brewster could handle extensive real-game playing time right now.
Everybody else is a long shot. One of the kids could step forward, but they'll all look at sea at the moment.
The practice ended with an 11-on-11, which offered the 1st teams against one another. For all the one-on-one foibles from the mid-practice drills, the first team line gave Tony Romo solid protection against the first team D and Romo carved them up, finding a flexed Witten on a slant for a big gain and a seam-running Witten a few plays later for another huge pickup. I'll repeat what I wrote yesterday -- the Senator looks faster this year.
-- Jason Hatcher appears to be making a slow, steady push at LE. He's blowing up runs to this side, he's beating his men in pass drills. He gave Marc Colombo a tough time today. Hatchers is a perennial quick starter, however, who always seems to roll into the injury ditch sometime around week two of camp. Hope he leaves San Antonio in one healthy piece. He could really contribute if he does.
-- NT Josh Brent sat out today's practice. I'm hoping he makes a quick return. He teased with his quickness. The trick is consistency.
-- Jason Williams is making more plays on the ball, against the run and the pass. He, like Robert Brewster, shows the effects of missing most of his rookie camp. He's still getting his mind around some of the coverages, but he stood up Tashard Choice on a counter, and appears to be more at ease locating and flying to the football.
-- The screen isn't going anywhere. The Cowboys practiced screens of all flavors today, to the backs and receivers.
-- Travis Bright got some reps at right guard with the third unit today. With Pat McQuistan looking fuzzy I take this as a strong sign for Bright, who looks like a cinch for the backup center role.
-- Scott Sicko's play package got bigger, as he worked today at F-back, flexing into the backfield to lead the ball carrier a few times. He played TE exclusively over the weekend.
-- The Cowboys unwrapped an old Jerry Glanville play today, with Gurode snapping the ball directly to Felix Jones, who ran a sweep right while Tony Romo faked watching the ball sail over his head.