Pads and shorts were worn this morning as the Cowboys went through a session heavy on special teams, primarily punt coverage and punt returns. The 6-on-7 and 11-on-11 work focused on two minute drills, with the three offensive units working with the 40 second clock and down markers.
A Coaching Family Affair
The special teams drills show the detail Joe DeCamillis brings to his work. Four assistants, D, John Garrett, Reggie Herring and Brett Maxie, work the drill. Each takes a different group of blockers, ensuring every special teammer gets one-on-one instruction every day they work. As I've mentioned before, DeCamillis thin-slices his drills into seconds. Each second of the play is broken down and worked out. Punt returners, for example, work on pre-snap placement, the blocking the first couple of seconds or so, until the ball is kicked, the releases upfield, their runs up field, and how to corral the returner once he gets the ball in his ands. That sequence of play might take five seconds and DeCamillis breaks it into four different drills.
This is why the coverage teams took such giant steps forward last year, and why they're good bets to stay among the NFL leaders in coverage.
Split Screen Redux:
The Cowboys ran the split screen drill, going 6-on-7 in the two minute offense while the offensive linemen worked on pass blocking one-on-one against linemen. Victor Butler opened the latter drill by violently rag-dolling John Phillips while countering an initial hard outside rush. Robert Brewster had a rough drill against Marcus Spears and was cautioned against letting linemen get into his body. Scott Sicko is making steady progress and held his ground against Brandon Williams for a few reps.
The Cowboys then worked on a 6-on-7, with each offensive grouping running a no-huddle offense. The 40 second end zone clocks have been in use the last few days and the QBs were impressive in setting and running plays quickly. Tony Romo could get a play run just eight seconds after the 40 second clock was re-set. The same was true for Stephen McGee. Jon Kitna was a touch slower, but got plays run in 10 seconds.
Of course, these are ideal times. The offense is at the mercy of the linemen and how quickly they can get downfield and set. For instance, Romo completed a deep post to Bennett on his opening series for 25 yards. His group ran upfield, set and got the next play off in just eight seconds. Does anybody think the big uglies can do the same? Probably not, but I do doubt that they would take much more. The OTs are relatively athletic, so the days of giant snails like Erik Williams and Nate Newton holding the no-huddle back are long gone.
The tight ends were the stars of the first O's series'. Bennett split the safeties for his long grab and Jason Witten lost Michael Hamlin on another big gainer. Miles Austin also made some big end zone grabs over starters and backups alike in the 11-on-11, as did Austin's partner, "Red-Zone-Roy" Williams, who snagged a couple of fades over Mike Jenkins.
Overall, the offensive zip which frayed with Tony Romo's sore right bicep returned today. A real game is coming up soon, and the team seems to feel it. They've been ready to hit players from other teams since the week-end and they can smell the Hall of Fame Game.
Bring it on.
-- Not 100%? Martellus Bennett looked a big gimpy in the loosening up drills the QBs and WRs and TEs hold every day. He lacked the zip his teammates left. On the other hand, Aquaman may have been doing his Jim Brown impersonation. Once he squared off against a real flesh-and-blood opponent, he made some big catches down the field.
-- Good Day at the Office: Sam Hurd, who has strung together a series of strong practices. The drops and frustration from the first week seem years in the past.
-- Jason Garrett is using the quarterbacks as red zone weapons. Draws and sneaks are part of the short-zone repertoire.
-- You can never be too careful: How does a staff walk the fine line between hitting and developing good tackling technique without beating up their own players? Secondary coaches Dave Campo and Brett Maxie unintentionally explored those limits today. Halfway through practice the defensive backs worked on shedding blocks and wrapping up opponents properly.
Maxie began the drill by rolling an earth ball at a defender, who was supposed to contain it, shed it and proceed towards a ball carrier. The D-back was then to wrap him up. Both coaches scrutinized the wraps ups and stressed placing the helmet on the runner's outside shoulder and exploding through the runner with the outside shoulder.
Full tackling was not allowed. The tackler struck, wrapped up and stood up his man. Yet, halfway through the drill, runner Terence Newman took a blow to his thigh and walked to the perimeter of the drill, sank to his knees and flipped his helmet off. He got up quickly but spent the next few minutes flexing his leg. Newman was his explosive self by drill's end, but his accident had to give the coaches pause. Here they were taking every precaution to prevent injuries and saw one of their best players grimacing in pain.
Football hurts, ladies and gentlemen, even when you run it at three quarter speed.
-- F-backs, they're like gold: If you wondered why the Cowboys took such pains to convince UFA Scott Sicko to join the team, consider how much work John Garrett invests in each player. I've seen Sicko work on straight tight end responsibilites, blocking and running patterns while lined up next to the tackle. He's also been an F-back, who lines up on the wing, next to the regular tight end, or in the slot. F-backs are primarily receivers, but they have important blocks on edge runs.
Sicko and friends also motion into the backfield and lead block. Here they're pure fullbacks. They also run patterns from the fullback position, when the Cowboys are in an off-set I set and especially when Tony Romo drops into the shotgun. Jason Witten has an extensive set of patterns from the backfield which have been deadly this camp.
Today, Sicko and the other TEs took part in the 1-on-7 pass rushing drills. He drew Victor Butler and Curtis Johnson, lining up on the right and then on the left. Here, he was a second offensive tackle. Sicko worked on sets just like Doug Free, Marc Colombo and Alex Barron.
These guys learn four different positions and have to excel at all of them to make the final roster. This is one reason why the team was so hesitant to trade Bennett last year and why the down roster guys, Sicko and Kevin Brock, will likely draw attention if they're cut late in the pre-season. You cant' take guys off the street and teach them all the skills the Cowboys demand of their F-backs in a short period of time.
-- Garrett seemingly grows them on trees: He's way down the depth chart, but that doesn't mean Kevin Brock hasn't made plays. He towers over his peers and he can get down low and deliver a wicked lead block. Dallas will have a hard time slipping Sicko and Brock onto the practice squad if they play the way they're practiced.
-- Teddy Williams may have a future playing gridiron: I had some skepticism about late-signing CB Teddy Williams. He has not played football of any kind in four years and looked like a PR signing, a warm body to hold the left CB spot while some injured corner healed. I've been pleasantly surprised by him. He's not making the team, mind you, he's way too green for that, but he's nonetheless progressed in his half week in camp. He may improve enough to earn a spot on the practice squad. On the other hand, he may look like a guy four days off the street on Sunday night. Add number 29 to your watch list.
-- Cake or Death?!?
Cake please! Late in practice, a man dressed in full Oakland Raiders/grim reaper attire showed up in the near stands. He drew no attention at first, and made a slow pass through the stands before being noticed. His reaction may not have been what he had in mind. A handful of people approached him with cameras and asked to be photographed with him. It's as if the Grim Reaper had joined Captain Hook and Snow White on the Disneyworld beat.
Nobody fears death these days, at least when he's wearing Raiders colors.