Cowboys Camp Report 8: The Defense, in a Decision

The shoulder pads returned this afternoon, as the Cowboys eased back towards full pads, which should come in tomorrow afternoon's practice.  

Today's late session saw the special teams turn to kickoff coverage and returns, while the offense and defense stressed nickel sets.  When the teams met for the final 11-on-11 work, the defense regained the upper hand, after a couple of days which saw the offense beating pressure with quick releases and solid blitz pickups.  

The defense debuted its "routine," a preening, strutting, barking group dance which preceeded each series.  The networks will no doubt pick up on it, if the defense doesn't get ahead of themselves and try naming it, trademarking it, building a song around it or marketing it in some way.

The special teams groups wasted little time in progressing from piecemeal kickoff drills to the full package.  After stretches the team set up and went full kickoff coverage units against full kickoff return units.  For those looking into lineups for some insight on rosters rankings, here is the first K.O. coverage bunch:

Alan Ball; Kevin Ogletree; Jason Williams; Victor Butler; Sam Hurd; David Buehler; Jesse Holley; Steve Octavien; Deon Anderson; Titus Ryan; Gerald Sensabaugh

There may be some significance in those names or maybe not.  The first and second group wedge blockers are a who's who of backup offensive linemen, with one bubble DE blended in:

 

 

Dez Bryant got several kickoff returns and energized the crowd by refusing to give up on a return even when half a dozen players surrounded him and tagged him.  He's having fun, this number 88. 

The offense and defense then broke into groups and worked on nickel pass plays.  The offense went eleven-against-air, practicing proper assignments.  On the opposite end of the field the defense worked against stopping nickel sets.  The "offense" donned colored toques (I'm making like Wade Phillips and giving "balaclavas" the afternoon off) so the secondary could recognize backs, tight ends and receivers.  Practice is making permanent as there were far fewer mixups today than there have been in past practices. 

The team again went to the "split-screen" work, where the offensive and defensive linemen practiced one-on-one and two-on-two blocking, while the skill position players went 6-on-7 against the nickel coverage guys.  If you are trying to read some tea leaves here, know a couple of things:

1.  The Cowboys practice press coverage in nickel most of the time.  They give the receivers very little space.  

2.  The first and second nickel packages deployed as follows:

First team:  LBs -- James and Brooking, CBs -- Newman, Jenkins and Scandrick; Ss -- Ball and Sensabaugh

Second team: LBs - J. Williams and L. Williams, CBs - Gordon, Wall and McCann;  Ss- Hamlin and Church

On the second team, Wall plays the critical slot corner role.  I don't know if this means he's running a bit ahead of Gordon, who has made some plays on the left side.  We probably won't get a clearer picture of the 4th corner race until the games begin.  

When the teams worked the final 11-on-11 drill, the defense came out barking, and promptly notched two sacks on the first offense.  Anthony Spencer claimed a coverage sack from Tony Romo, who found nobody open and gave up.  On the second play, the right side of the line whiffed their protection, giving Spencer a clean shot at Romo, who slammed the ball to the turf in frustration.  

On the next play, Dallas split Jason Witten wide left, on the edge of the formation and the pressing defense shifted Keith Brooking out to cover him.  Romo tried a fade towards the right sideline for Dez Bryant, who juggled the ball between two defenders before dropping it, for perhaps the first time all camp.  

The defense landed some haymakers but the offense countered with a long draw play to the left, where Doug Free and Kyle Kosier blew open a wide running lane.  

When the 2nd offensive and defensive units replaced the starters, Orlando Scandrick broke up a ball from the right corner spot.  Kevin Ogletree made an appearance, with a leaping grab in the middle of the field.  

Sophomore Watch

The second year guys are back in the mix after all the early draft picks were knocked out by major injuries last year.  Here's a progress report:

-- Jason Williams looks better.  More reps are doing his brain some good.  I don't see the coverage mixups from a few days ago.  I'd like to see him work against the top units more, but he broke up a pass today and is finding his way to the ball.

-- Robert Brewster appears to be getting into the swing of things.  His pass protection has been better the last three sessions.  The team is working him almost exclusively at right tackle and this has kept him focused. 

-- Stephen McGee shows a strong arm.  He gunned an a completion to Jesse Holley into a very small window in front of Orlando Scandrick up the left sideline.  He looks far more decisive but still has plays where his timing seems slow.  I'd like to see him get better protection and hope he gets it in the preseason games.

-- Victor Butler and Brandon Williams -- Have not seen much of Williams.  Butler looked better in coverage in early drills and has been a menace against Marc Colombo in one-on-one drills  It's hard to get a clear reading on their play, however.

-- Mike Hamlin -- have not seen many reps since the weekend.  He's playing a lot at the free, and with the Cowboys playing press and with tackling out, I have not had a chance to get an extensive look at any of the FS.

-- John Phillips -- is looking better all arounds, as as blocker, and as a receiver.  His hands are very good, and he seems faster.  He's cementing his place in the two TE sets with Martellus Bennett out. 

Notes:

-- Tactical adjustments:  Jason Witten has been flexing into the backfield a lot lately and releasing on pass patterns from the fullback position.  The defense was so concerned with containing him after his fast start that both linebackers on his side covered him, turning John Phillips loose for big gains.  I hope putting Witten in the backfield has a similar effect in real games. 

-- Jason Garrett continues to drill screens with his offense.  I think this group may return to a level of screen competency not seen since the Landry days.  They work at least half a dozen into every practice, for every situation, and every player, receiver, back and tight end, has a play designed for him.  Some have several screens in their arsenals.

-- Miles Austin spent another afternoon in the number 2 jersey.  His quarterbacks were still able to find him.  We've been quiet with Austin notes thus far, but don't despair -- he beat both Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins deep today.  No problems here.

-- I think the bleeding may have stopped at backup RT.  I saw a third consecutive solid practice from Robert Brewster.  Does this mean he's getting his pass protecting sea legs underneath him or is Brewster simply tuning in to the defenders' moves, after facing them for eight practices?  We won't really know until the pre-season games start. 

-- The toques make different players look funny.  When the girthy linemen wear the colored tops, they look like old women in shower caps.  Mike Jenkins, on the other hand, pulls his tuque low on his helmet, so it almost covers the top of his face-mask.  This makes him look a bit like Weird Harold from the old "Fat Albert" cartoons.  

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