The Cowboys struggled to maintain sharpness Saturday morning, working their third consecutive practice in full pads. The 90 minutes workout eshewed the 9-on-9 and 1-on-1 drills from the past few days and jumped directly from the positional workouts into 11-on-11 square-offs.
The coaches put a twist into the day's work, playing the 1st team wide receivers and backs with 2nd team QB Jon Kitna and the second o-line, while promoting Sam Hurd, Patrick Crayton and Kevin Ogletree to the first unit. The units then worked on red zone and yellow zone plays, starting series just inside the 10, just inside the 20 and just inside the 30.
The switches show that receivers do matter. The 2nd unit had its sharpest workout, as Kitna had better receivers than he's normally used to. Romo, meanwhile, had his most erratic workout. He had to throw away several tosses because he had no open targets to locate.
The workout was the team's 11th in a week, and the minor pulls and sprains are adding up. Dez Bryant did not show on the field today, but the trainers had a solid eight defense prospects rehabbing in the far end zone: Sean Lee, Sean Lissemore, Pat Watkins, Jason Hatcher, Josh Brent, Stephen Hodge, Steve Octavien and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah all missed the scrimmages. The most encouraging news involves Hodge, who dressed in full pads, but worked with the trainers. He may finally be close to returning to the practice field, though he sports a large brace on his left knee.
Two Hand Wedgies
Joe DeCamillis worked his klckoff return units hard this morning, with special emphasis on his wedge groupings. Unlike yesterday, where Joe D had single-man wedges, today, he deployed a single two-man wedge, with floating blockers on each edge, who fanned out to handle would-be tacklers trying to crash from the edges of the coverage.
With top return prospect Bryant out, the veteran stand-bys took their turns this morning. Miles Austin and Felix Jones got their first turns with the top return group. DeCamillis may have intended to use them all along, but he had used Bryant and Kevin Ogletree in yesterday's initial return practice.
The team went directly to red-zone 11-on-11 and 4th CB leader Cletis Gordon opened a strong practice by blanketing Miles Austin at the short right end zone pylon, forcing a Romo incompletion. Patrick Crayton caught a pass front of Jamar Wall for a 1st down, but the first offense's series came to an abrupt end when the surging Brandon Williams sniffed out a Sam Hurd reverse and caused a huge loss.
Kitna led the second offense against the first defense and moved the ball, finding Martellus Bennett over the middle and later hit Miles Austin in the end zone. Jason Garrett surprised the starters by calling a quarterback draw for the relatively immobile Kitna. The QB followed strong blocking off the right side into the end zone. Kitna kept the big guys off balance by faking a rocket pitch to Felix Jones before finding the slumming Roy Williams open in the back middle of the end zone. Working with the starting skill position guys clearly suited Kitna.
Romo's ragged day continued on his next sequence. He saw Witten drop one of his balls up the left sideline. Romo rolled out right on a subsequent play and tried forcing a pass across his body when he found the primary target covered. Gordon picked off Romo and kept running until he was end zone bound. Felix Jones gave chase but the play summed up the entire first offense's up-and-down first practice.
On the plus side, the run blocking was productive and consistent. Leonard Davis is pulling more on traps to the edge and the Cowboys have balance on edge runs, since Doug Free and Marc Colombo can both pull and pull effectively. Colombo's toss right has been a money run for Dallas, but Flozell Adams wasn't the pulling type. Free showed last year that he can get out in space and Dallas is running lots of tosses and sweeps to his edge this summer.
It was an up-and-down morning for rookie Jamar Wall, who is trying to keep pace with Cletis Gordon. He broke up a Romo pass for Sam Hurd but then let Hurd get behind him for a score on the very next play. On the subsequent call, Dallas ran a quick screen right, and Colombo threw the over-matched Wall onto his backside with a well-timed punchout at the goal-line. Wall does make plays, but he doesn't have Gordon's consistency at this time.
Fans shouldn't designate Wall to their mental practice squads yet. He's playing the slot, which shows that he has good lateral coverage skills to both sidelines. Recall the battle between Evan Oglesby and Alan Ball two camps ago. Oglesby was the star of early camp, picking off several passes in the first two weeks. Yet, the coaches kept Ball at the final cut down. They cited Ball's potential; Oglesby was a multi-year vet and was likely at his ceiling, while Ball had room to grow. That decision looks wise today, as Ball starts at free safety. Gordon has a few camps under his belt. Wall is seven days into his pro career. The Cowboys may make a similar decision with him a few weeks down the road. Or, they may decide to keep both players if Gordon keep producing. Quality corners are like quality pass rushers or good staring pitchers -- you can never have enough.
-- Pat McQuistan continues to struggle with agile interior rushers. Jay Ratliff ate him up with a swim move today. This opens the door for one of the kids, if the Cowboys decide to keep four guards. They may just stick with Montrae Holland.
-- Anthony Spencer uncoiled some strong rush moves today. He beat Alex Barron around the edge, something few of the team's ends or OLBs have done all camp. Spencer showed a real burst, suggesting he's not bringing the A rush on every down. Spencer told me in our Maple Street Press interview (shameless plug) that he' worked hard on his core and lower body strength, so he can turn the corner without slowing down this year.
-- Trickeration City: Dallas practiced a halfback toss in the 11-on-air drills and it worked perfectly against a live defense. Marion Barber waited until the defense committed to stopping an apparent toss run before he raised the ball and flipped it to Miles Austin for a score.
Quote of the Day : "He shocked me. He just shocked me." A head-shaking fan after Roy Williams dropped a fade from Tony Romo in the left corner of the end zone.
Don't fret Roy, a lot of your offensive teammates also had shocking drops and throws this morning.