Cowboys Training Camp Report 18: The Anatomy of a Practice

The Cowboys worked out on shorts and shirts this morning, in the first of their last three San Antonio practices.  The thin attire suggest we have may seen the last pad practices on the Alamodome.  The team might wear pads and shorts this afternoon, but I would be surprised.  

In their 100 minutes, the Cowboys worked on special teams, especially in defending squib kicks and on-side kicks.  The team spent the last third on 11-on-11 drills.  

To give people a flavor how how these workouts are structured, I've broken this morning's practice down by time.  Follow me as I show how the Cowboys make the most of every practice minute.

9:00 AM

The players have been gathering slowly on the field for the previous few minutes, most of them in the north end zone, which has the lone stadium upright.  When the horn goes off at nine sharp, the special teams break into four groups, two return units and two coverage units.  Reggie Herring takes what he calls the "second unit" with him to the south end, where they put on the orange balaclava tops and set up in kickoff return formation.  DeCamillis takes the first group on the north side and sets up his first-team kickoff coverage group.  

David Buehler kicks a few deep and the units work on a left return, a right return and middle return.  DeCamillis steps in between each kick to single out coverage guys for critiques and impromptu lessons. 

9:10 

The Cowboys get in their assigned lines in the middle of the field, with each half facing the 50.  There, Joe Juraczek leads the team in stretching.  

9:15

The special teams re-group in kickoff return and coverage packages.  Now, however, the emphasis is not on returns but on recognizing and reacting to "hot" kickoffs (hard kicks aimed directly at an up-man, with the intent of getting the ball to ricochet off leg and back at the returners.   The 2nd teamer reacts to the ball by diving on it, while a second teammate covers him quickly.  

The unit then practices responding to onside kicks to the edges of the field and then, the units switch responsibility and the first group works on handling squib kicks.  DeCamills shows that his Cowboys will attempt to turn squibs into offensive opportunities.  On two occasions, the wedge-level blocker picked up the squib kick and flipped the ball backwards to one of the edge wedge blockers.  (These guys are usually a back or tight end).  He would then work on a reverse or fake reverse and run towards blocking set up on a perimeter.  If a team tries squibbing to avoid a big return, D hopes his guys can turn this field position concession to maximum advantage and get a big return anyway, simply by different means.

The team then worked in the north end zone on conceding a safety, with the punter catching the ball and  then wasting as much time as possible running laterally across the back of the field before stepping out of bounds.  The blockers were drilled on holding their blocks as long as possible to eat up as much time as possible.  DeCamillis plans for everything, and here wants his team to successfully burn the clock if they are nursing a 4 or more point lead in the final seconds.  Sam Hurd made an appearance in this drill when the ball was snapped from his groups 35.  Dallas may figure that a receiver would be better at meandering in space and wasting time than a kicker. 

After several reps the Cowboys worked -- at rapid pace -- on field goals.  David Buehler nailed a few short kicks inside the 25 before holder Mat McBriar stood up with the snap and attempted a pass to one of his edge blockers. Brandon Williams was not fooled (this has been a happy motif of the second week for Williams) and broke up the pass.

DeCamillis threw another special teams wrinkle in by replacing McBriar with Patrick Crayton.  I don't know if Crayton is auditioning to be the emergency snapper or if the team has some plays prepared for him.  (He did play QB in college, after all.)  Crayton muffed the first snap and played the second on the straight, holding for Buehler, who make his kick and patted Crayton on the head.

9:35

The Cowboys break up into group work.  The entire offense runs 11-on-air drills, working at 3/4 speed at lining up and executing the plays for the 11-on-11 properly.  Jason Garrett throws the old Earl Morrall Baltimore Colts special double pass here.  If you've ever seen NFL Films Super Bowl III and V highlights, you'll know this was a trick play for the '60s Colts.  Morrall infamously bungled it in the loss to the Jets, taking a throwback lateral from the back, who faked a sweep, and then missing WR Jimmy Orr who waved in vain in the end zone.

Tony Romo brought a much happier result today, connecting with his target for a "score." 

In the south half, the d-backs work on agility and reaction drills, while the linebackers worked on coverage and the D-linemen practices their hand usage and lane charges against tackling dummies. 

9:50

The skill position guys go 6-on-7 against the d-backs and linebackers, in a drill which initially opens at 3/4 speed but which springs to full speed once the QBs start chucking the ball downfield.  Michael Hamlin steals an underthrown Tony Romo post attempt at Kevin Ogletree.  The D-linemen work on lane assigments and stunts, sliding between upturned trash cans, which signify offensive linemen.  On the northwest edge of the field, the offensive linemen work on their pass protection, on negating the very drills and stunts the defensive guys are practicing at the same time. 

10:05

Full 11-on--11 work begins in the middle of the field, with yard makers.  The teams work on situational plays and are each responsible for checking the down and distance before each snap.  Each grouping gets staggered and weighted snaps.  For instance, the first team offense gets 12 of the 18 snaps in this session.  It gets the first six against the 2nd defense.  At play seven, Jon Kitna brings in the 2nd offense to drill a couple of plays against the 3rd D, before the 1st defense comes on.  

After four snaps, Stephen McGee brings the 3rd offense on, for two unenviable downs against the 1st-team defense.  Some notes from each sequence:

 

  • The first offense looked very crisp.  Most of the plays are called for the 11 set, with three WRs against the 4-2-5 nickel defense.  The second WR trio of Patrick Crayton, Sam Hurd and Kevin Ogletree got to work with the rest of the first group and made the most of their snaps.  Crayton caught an intermediate route.  Jason Witten caught two.   
  • Ogletree stayed on with the second offense and caught two more passes, one a low-thrown stop fade which he snagged off the turf.  Ogletree was Kitna's go-to target, getting three of the QBs attempts.  Titus Ryan bungled his ball, which raises the stakes on his game reps.
  • Stephen McGee continues to get an incomplete because his line cannot give him time.  Anthony Spencer blew past Will Barker and would have taken the ball from McGee's hand were the game live. 

 

10:20

The team takes a brief water break

10:23

The final 11-on-11 begins.  This on takes the same contour as the first.  Romo and his group get six reps, Kitna's boys get four, and McGee gets two. The cycle repeats itself, until Matt Nichols gets McGee's final two snaps of the day.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

10:40

The final horn sounds and the team lines up for final stretches.  

Notes:

-- Martellus Bennett has a hitch in his giddyup.  He's not limping badly, but he does seem sore.  He's moving veery slowly between snaps.  

-- The light is on, and Brandon is home:  I've noted in small blurbs, I want to give more attention to Brandon Williams' surge.  The Cowboys are running all forms of bootlegs, reverses and fake reverses at Demarcus Ware to keep him honest.  Mr. Everything simply blows up everything.  I have yet to see him fooled by a misdirection in camp. 

I can say the same for Ware's understudy Williams, who has shown football smarts to match his quick first rush step.  He should get a lot of pre-season reps and don't be at all surprised to see him making plays,.  He's been on top of everything the offense has shown him thus far.  

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