Today, the Cowboys neatly picked up yesterday's major training camp narratives. If you'll recall, Thursday's dominant memes concerned injured players returning from the training table; problems at center; preparations for Monday night's first preseason game in Oakland; the fact that the coaches were increasing both the amount of full team scrimmaging work and, with it, asking for increases in tempo and general saltiness; and, finally, the receiving candidate wheel of fortune, which seems daily to raise somebody up and dash another poor soul's hopes.
Yesterday, I wrote that we can tell players are on the verge of donning the pads once their rehab graduates to the "working on the bands" stage. Two players who were running yesterday, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher, matriculated to the bands today, signalling imminent returns. Other positive signs on the injury front: John Phillips participated in the early-practice pat-and-go session, with nary a hitch; Mo Claiborne and Matt Johnson continued to progress, working on backpedaling, planting and driving to the ball; and Jay Ratliff, disobeying trainer's orders, repeatedly snuck into full-contact team drills, and acquitted himself marvelously.
This good news was tempered by the fact that starting center Phil Costa suffered what was described as a mild lower back strain (which shouldn't keep him out long, if at all), and was replaced by David Arkin. Predictably, with Arkin at the pivot, Thursday's comedy of snapping errors continued, serving momentarily to derail one of the final team periods. And, speaking of backup centers (and picking up where we left off), OT Pat McQuistan saw further work at center, running with the third team. Following in Martellus Bennett's footsteps, McQ also took snaps as a blocking tight end (more on that later).
Before the snapping snafu served to slow the practice's momentum, it was a high-tempo, physical affair. Afterward, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan characterized today's action as the most physical and intense of training camp thus far - an assessment with which I would wholeheartedly concur. That, combined with the weather (it was also the hottest Oxnard session yet, with the thermometer topping out at 79 degrees) caused tempers to flare a bit: in the final team period, Doug Free, perhaps angered by a false start a play earlier (which resulted in the dreaded Offensive Lineman's Walk of Shame, the slow stroll back to the position group to sit out a play), engaged in some extended fisticuffs with Kenyon Coleman. It was, by all accounts, the biggest and best fight of camp.
What else happened in Friday's practice? Make the jump and read every juicy detail...
Once again, practice began with a special teams section. Today, the focus was on punt returns. As per usual, ST coach Joe DeCamillas broke what can best be described as organized chaos into ordered units. He and the other assistant coaches had perimeter line players work on getting their bodies between punt coverage guys and the returner, without pushing the opposing player in the back. in another part of the field, he had "inside" players work on getting off blocks, through traffic and then engage in the same kind of shielding. On the far field, the outside guys worked to double-team gunners in order to keep them from getting easy downfield penetration.
When we watch preseason games, it can be very instructive to see who is playing on which special teams unit, as that can be a strong indicator of what the coaches think about a given player, as well as what they need to see from him in order to make the team. At present, your punt first and second return teams consists mostly of usual suspects - Alex Albright, Danny McCray, Barry Church, Dan Connor and/ or Bruce Carter (one or the other, as I suggested yesterday, will have to become a core ST guy should he lose the fierce SILB battle) - with a sprinkling of interesting possibilities in guys like Eddie Whitley, Teddy Williams, Mario Butler, Jamize Olawale, Orie Lemon, Sean Chapas, Andre Holmes and Raymond Radway.
Also continuing a previously established narrative: once they had run through the drill several times using the jugs machine, the coaches had punter Chris Jones offer up a live boot to a waiting Dez Bryant. The resultant kick sailed out of bounds, unreturnable. And: the backup punt returner was the diminutive Cole Beasley (more on him later).
Also as we have seen, Bill Callahan and Wes Phillips worked off to the side with the offensive line (who never participate in the blue period special teams sessions). Their focus today was picking up stunts and interior games. The two coaches broke this up into discrete elements, with the guards working on giving their men an initial pop before passing them onto another lineman. The tackles took the other half of this, peeling off their men to pick up a stunting lineman.
The last two days have seen an uptick in the amount of scrimmaging in preparation for an actual game. That's not to say that the Dallas coaches are game-planning per se. Quite the contrary; during the scripted walk-through, we were treated to rather basic selections from Garrett's offensive manual: mostly base sets, featuring two backs and one tight end. With the Raiders on the horizon, this makes a lot of sense. What the coaches want to do is to focus on execution, so they'll narrow the playlist to perhaps 40 options. That way, they can level the playing field for the guys competing for the same positions or roles. For example, we're likely to see Danny Coale and Cole Beasley (who are essentially the same player) run similar patterns from the same positions, so that they can compare them more readily. This is more easily accomplished with a short playlist.
An interesting note from the walk-through: on one play, James Hanna went in motion outside of the outside receiver, which drew Bruce Carter outside with him. What this accomplishes is twofold: it takes a linebacker out of the middle of the defense, making it more vulnerable to the run, and it tells the quarterback a lot about the coverage scheme. In the mid-90s, Ernie Zampese used to do this with Moose Johnston for these reasons, so it's not new; indeed, Garrett has used this trick in recent years. However, I have seen a lot of it in the past week, so I wonder if sending the likes of Vickers, Hanna or Phillips out wide is going to become a more standard part of the offensive arsenal.
After a warm-up, the team broke into position work. Some highlights from that: the offensive line practiced staying low when they fired out on the snap (and then doing the same after taking several short shuffle steps); receivers worked on making a catch, then turning upfield to burst through two "defenders" holding big padded shields; defenders used upside-down garbage cans to work on run fits and spacing on stunts.
After these were wrapped up, we saw running backs and fullbacks work on picking up blitzing ILBs. Lawrence Vickers really stood out in this drill, standing his ground and stopping several charging linebackers in their tracks. At the same time, tight ends and outside linebackers worked on blocking the perimeter and defeating perimeter blocks. Jason Witten doesn't get much push in these drills, but he's really sticky: his opponent never seems to elude his grasp. Backup wannabes James Hanna and Andrew Szczerba, on the other hand, need to polish both their anchor and their technique; both were abused by the likes of Sean Lee and Kyle Wilber, who easily got by Hanna with a pretty (and lightning fast) arm-over move.
As this was happening, the receivers and defensive backs engaged in one-on-one red zone drills. As has been the case all week, watching Brandon Carr and Dez Bryant face off in these drills is a real treat. In one play, Bryant worked across Carr to get open on a post for a score. A couple of plays later, on a corner route, Carr deftly blocked Bryant from jumping the ball, and it fell incomplete. Their epic battles usually end in a draw, which is a good thing; when great players go head to head, both should bat about .500.
After this, we were treated to a full squad scrimmage, which kicked off with a terrific Ogletree snag on a post pattern. I have been quick to criticize 'Tree for his lackadaisical nature when running drills, and haven't seen him play at a level high enough to warrant such a cavalier 'tude. Today, however, I thought he had his best practice. He ran good routes, and made several nice catches. In addition, Andre Holmes had a nice day, which included the plat du jour, an electric grab wherein he was smacked by Barry Church just as he caught the ball on a deep in and not only held on but also kept his feet and continued to run through the startled secondary.
That said, the wide receiver carousel continues its churn. Dallas' cadre of young receivers struggles to stack good days together; after a couple of promising practices, for instance, Raymond Radway had an off day, dropping an easy pass, causing him to take off his helmet in frustration and skulk back to the huddle. Tim Benford, who many thought was making a move earlier in the week, was well nigh invisible. The only guy refusing to get on the carousel is Cole Beasley, who once again showed quickness, hands and an uncanny knack for getting open. The result was another big bushel of catches, including one scintillating one-handed grab on a low pass.
The coaches are beginning to mix-and-match the receivers in anticipation of Monday's contest. On more than one occasion, Danny Coale played the "z" position opposite Dez Bryant, with Ogletree (who has played the "z" all camp) moving to the slot. Dwayne Harris also received fist-team snaps at the "z." In trying to divine the WR battle, I'm going to watch more than the offensive plays; I'll be taking notes on how they perform on special teams. Beasley and Benford, for example, will be given an opportunity to return punts; Holmes and Radway will cover them. There are seven candidates for three or four spots. Their respective success or failure on teams will go a loooong way in determining who earns a spot on the 53.
The team moved on to a series of unusual final-play scenarios designed to kill the remaining few ticks on the clock: punter Chris Jones took a snap and ran through the end zone; Tony Romo rolled out, waited as long as possible, and then threw the ball out of bounds; with the ball on about the 20, Beasley served as the "punter," took the snap and ran back into the end zone. The also worked on the "victory formation," with Orton talking a knee, then practiced field goals - and, in a shocking development, Dan Bailey wasn't perfect. Orlando Scandrick zoomed around the corner and stuck out a hand to block his first attempt, and he missed his second, from about 55 yards. The other two were good.
Speaking of Scandrick, he looked overmatched in the one-on-one red zone drills, failing to defend a single pass. But he more than made up for it in the 7-on-7 and full squad periods, notching a "sack" on a corner blitz, and breaking up passes intended for Ogletree and Harris, and generally playing with a chippy, competitive manner.
With the practice running down, we saw Pat McQuistan working as a blocking tight end in "heavy" sets. Given that he also saw snaps as a backup center, I wonder if we can lump McQ in with a handful of other bottom-of-the-roster guys who the coaches have played at multiple positions of late. Consider: Alex Albright has received playing time at both inside and outside linebacker and tight end as well as all the special teams groups. Mario Butler, who has all but secured the fifth corner position (he saw snaps today with the first team nickel defense), has been eased into the rotation at safety as well. I may be reading too much into this, but it seems like the coaching staff is trying to increase the versatility of the bottom of the roster. To my mind, the question is: would they bother if they didn't have a good feeling that these guys would actually be on the roster?
The Cowboys have one more day of practice and a morning walk-through before flying to Oakland Sunday. Unlike them, I'm driving north, so I'll attend tomorrow's practice, author a short post and then hit the road in time to arrive in NoCal in the wee hours. Once I'm in the Bay Area, I'll share some further thoughts on this week's practices, the state of the roster, and more.
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