On Saturday afternoon, the Dallas coaching staff continued to turn up the dial on the proverbial camp stove, increasing the heat by de-emphasizing skills drills and giving increasing weight to full-team scrimmaging. The coaches didn't eschew individual position drills altogether; however, rather than using drills to polish skills that would then be used and developed n the team drills, they returned to basics we had seen earlier in the week: agility drills, work on creating and avoiding turnovers; pad level and hand placement.
In this spirit, the "blue" period special teams work saw a rotation through all the various units, each of which had been the subject of an entire day's teaching. In quick succession, coach Joe DeCamillis ran his charges through punt coverage, kickoff coverage, kick return and punt return. Not that this went off without a hitch, mind you. On several occasions, the dissatisfied coach was heard yelling at his guys to run it again. If you are wondering what the Dallas coaches think about the roster, watch the special teams play closely on Monday; the bubble guys will see a lot of important action here, as the staff wants to assemble the longest book on them that they possibly can.
Phil Costa, you'll recall, tweaked his back yesterday, and did not practice today as a result. In his absence, David Arkin took first team snaps for most of the afternoon (although Harland Gunn did take a few later in practice). Because it's impossible to assess a team when plays are derailed by the most basic football functions, I suspect that the coaches will tear the shotgun out of Monday's playbook. Unless somebody gets hurt getting off the plane, the starting interior line against Oakland will be Derrick Dockery, Arkin and Mackenzie Bernadeau. If you had gone to Vegas six weeks ago to lay money on this starting three, you would have gotten very long odds.
What happened in Oxnard on a sunny Saturday afternoon? Make the jump and prepare to be amazed...
A couple interesting tidbits from the scripted 11-on-11 work: Felix Jones again motioned outside the slot receiver, in order to either a) draw a linebacker out with him or b) force a corner to cover him, thus getting a safety-on-corner matchup for the slot receiver. Since I've seen this several times in recent days, I'll look for this against Oakland. And, Rob Ryan ran out a nickel line with two down linemen, Kenyon Coleman and Jay Ratliff, with DeMarcus Ware and Victor Butler standing up. Then, he would float an ILB over to one of the stand-up guys' side. For instance, Sean Lee line up just inside Ware on one occasion, causing a moment of confusion.
When the lines went head-to-head, whether in drills or during the full team scrimmage, things were salty. Taking a page from the book of Jimmy, Jason Garrett has had the team in pads for every possible practice (since Wednesday, August first), and they are practicing in that spirit, especially in recent days. When the respective lines went at it during a run drill, for example, there was a lot of cheering and encouragement on both sides, and they took that attitude to the 11-on-11 work, where both players and coaches were clearly getting hyped by the intensity and contact.
If the defense was more vocal during these skirmishes, it was because they had more positive plays to shout about. To put it bluntly, the defense kicked the offense's backsides for the bulk of the afternoon. In drills, both Clifton Geathers and Ben Bass shed blocks to stop runs in the backfield; in the full team, the front seven overwhelmed the offensive front. If it had been a game, Tony Romo would probably have been sacked five or six times, and screens to Felix Jones and Jason Witten were eaten up. Both players were "tackled" almost as soon as they caught the ball; both plays would have resulted in losses. And this wasn't due to a lack of effort or desire; the drills clearly mattered to the offense. After a motion penalty disrupted a hurry-up session, Romo spiked the ball in disgust.
Is this a matter of the O-line's disarray or the defense's excellence? There's no way to make a determination until we see what happens Monday night.
Speaking of Monday night: In recent days, the team had spent perhaps forty minutes in full team scrimmage. Today, they went at if for a little more than an hour, with the only break being a quick field goal session. And the full squad work build in intensity. They began by working on the passing game (this is where the defense was most dominant), then upped the ante by moving on to running plays. As a result, the intensity and contact built over the course of the practice. As if choreographing a workout that ends with a nasty hill climb, the coaches seem to have designed the week's work to build to that point.
The cool down began with some scout team work, in which the first offense ran a handful of plays against bottom-of-the-roster guys, and then defended against the scrubeenies led by Rudy Carpenter and Stephen McGee. Although the last three days have clearly been designed with the Raiders in mind, this was the full extent of "gameplanning" in which they'll indulge. Practice concluded with a two-minute scenario: Romo and the offense took over trailing 24-21, with just over two minutes remaining and, completing eight of nine passes, including a sizeable gain to Kevin Ogletree on a busted coverage and then, two plays later, a touchdown in the flat to Jason WItten, who had a step on Gerald Sensabaugh.
That Romo did this without Dez Bryant in the lineup was all the more impressive. Bryant missed the bulk of practice's final hour after lightly tweaking his hamstring. Although both he and team officials said that it was no big deal, it will almost certainly hold him out of Monday night's tilt. In his absence, your starting receivers in the full team period were Kevin Ogletree and Dwayne Harris. A bit later, when they went to three wide, number 85 was joined by Andre Holmes, with Cole Beasley in the slot. It was clear the last couple of days that the coaches were transitioning from general practice to prep for Monday night. Nowhere was this more evident that in the receiver rotation, where all the likely candidates were getting reps with Tony Romo and Kyle Orton. Given that Romo won't play more than one series, they'll have a lot more opportunities with Orton on Monday.
If you've read these reports, you know that a different receiver tends to show up each practice, and then often disappear. Today, the receiving gods' "up" arrow pointed at Andre Holmes, who has struggled to use his size and elite length (he's 6'5") to shield defenders and to high-point the ball. At the end of yesterday's practice, a light seemed to go on, as Holmes started making plays. Today, he had his best practice of camp. On one play, he got his big body between Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and the ball; later, he leaped up to high-point a pass; finally, he put an exclamation point on the practice by coming down with a Hail Mary pass from Orton. I know Jerry Jones, who has been championing Holmes all year, hopes he can build on this effort. For once, I find myself in agreement with the Cowboys' owner.
If you like these training camp reports, please contribute to the BTB Training Camp Fund. All donations welcomed and much appreciated!