After yesterday's record turnout for the Blue-White scrimmage, things returned to normal in Oxnard, with a more navigable number of fans gathered around the fence and in the stands watching the Cowboys coaching staff putting the team through its paces. The lesson plan for today was the nickel package; both units spent the majority of the afternoon practicing techniques that pertain to running and defending three receiver sets.
Before they did so, however, the team initially broke into special teams groups. One was working on punt coverage, where three players (who would line up in the middle, not as gunners) would run downfield past tackling dummies as tightly as possible and attempt to surround the punt returner on three sides. Coach Joe DeCamillis was in full flower; he yelled at Orie Lemon for being slow to get downfield, which might leave the ballcarrier a potential escape lane. On the far field, they carefully worked on kickoff returns, focusing on maintaining lane integrity.
Coach Joe D. then had his guys work on beating a pair of blockers by having the first guy down occupy both of them in order to spring the second guy so that he could make the tackle. On the far field, the larger group worked on executing and recovering onside kicks. I'm not sure whether the return team I witnessed qualifies as a "hands team," as guys like Levy Adcock and Ben Bass were seen on the front lines. Who knows? Maybe both were high school tight ends with soft hands. Other players on the front lines were Mario Butler, Eddie Whitley, Harland Gunn and Phil Costa. Make of that what you will...
More after the jump...
I know other commentators have mentioned this, but I can't help feel that it's worth reiterating. Today, water breaks were called precisely at 2:56, 3:26, 3:56 and so on. Whenever there was a transition between periods, the players ran or quickly jogged to their next assignment, and needed little direction. In short, they were well prepared. The ship Garrett runs is nothing if not precise and consistent. If Wade Phillips' camps were dubbed "Camp Cupcake," this would have to be "Camp Punctual."
The offensive linemen joined the team a bit late after the first break, as they continued to work with coach Bill Callahan and his assistant, Wes Phillips, for another minute or so after the horn sounded. This reminded me that, as I arrived at the facility, the first thing I noticed was that the offensive linemen were out on the field early, working with Callahan on hand placement and technique. It's clear that Callahan is squeezing every second out of this camp, probably because he realizes that his charges need it. Phillips has been a big help, as he usually takes half of the players for each drill, which allows for a higher coach-to-player ratio.
In recent days, they have divvied up their charges by interior and exterior, with one working the tackles and the other guards and centers. Today, Callahan worked with players on the left side of the line (Tyron Smith, Jermey Parnell, Nate Livings, David Arkin and others) and Phillips had the strong-side guys: Doug Free, Ron Leary, Phil Costa, Pat McQuistan et. al. They both worked meticulously (although it was clear Callahan is the better and more demonstrative teacher) on various techniques: double-team blocks wherein one guy peels off and goes to the second level; footwork and pad level when drive blocking.
The Cowboys then broke into their first full squad period of the day, where they walked through the nickle packages that proved to be the theme of today's practice. With injuries at corner and receiver, today's nickel corner threesome was Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Mario Butler. I suppose this means that Butler is currently the fifth corner. This makes a lot of sense when we consider that the coaching staff is working him at safety as well: they clearly like him, and also like the idea of backups with position flexibility. When Scandrick missed a few plays after tweaking what looked to be a knee, he was replaced by Akwasi Owusu Ansah, so I guess AOA is your sixth corner.
Even though receivers coach Jimmy Robinson insists that Kevin Ogletree is the leading candidate for third receiver, the starting receivers in the nickle were Dez Bryant, Dwayne Harris and Raymond Radway. With Miles Austin out, this suggests that depth chart at WR shows Harris as the third and Radway as the fourth corner, regardless of what Robinson says.
One reason why I refuse to believe the coach: Kevin Ogletree never hustles. A significant aspect of today's work featured short crossing patterns from three-receiver sets. Playing the slot, Ogletree cut underneath to grab a pass, and then jogged rather half-heartedly once he had made the catch. Later in the day, the receivers ran a drill in which they settled down in a hole in a zone, caught a pass and then turned and burst upfield, trying to split two tacklers and gain extra yardage. The rest of the receivers tend to do this with the majority of their receptions anyway, but not 'Tree...
After the full team stretch, backs and receivers worked on the aforementioned drill while the offensive and defensive linemen worked in groups on rushing techniques and hand placement. Then, the entire offensive unit worked on exploding off the snap while, on the far field, defensive backs worked on breaking down and tackling. They focused on taking the right angle to the receiver, and then staying under control so that they remained in position to wrap up immediately after the catch. We saw them use this technique later, in the full squad period, when backs and tight ends caught passes in the short zones.
And then, in a peculiar twist, we were introduced to the team's new tight end: Alex Albright. As Romo and Co. worked on seam routes to the tight ends, number 55 took a few reps. I couldn't help but wonder whether this was a similar situation to that with Mario Butler: see what other skills a bottom-of-the-roster guys might have in order to give the team greater depth and give the team a reason to hold onto him - all the more important for Albright since Orie Lemon has come on at ILB. Given that Albright is one of their best special teams players, this makes a lot of sense for all involved.
After the next horn signaled a break, the receivers and defensive backs worked on getting off the line (or, in the case of the DBs, mirroring the receiver as he made his break). Several guys stood out in this drill: Brandon Carr has incredibly strong hands. He stopped Donovan Kemp cold with a single hand on his chest. Cole Beasley is by far the quickest receiver on the team. I know it's no great feat, but he juked AOA out of his socks. And Dez Bryant is really physical; he'd just as soon run through defenders as juke or run around them. He powered through C.J. Wilson, who, at 6'1", 205 is hardly diminutive. And Andre Holmes has great size, but looks really stiff, especially when compared to the similarly-sized, and much more fluid, Radway.
As this was happening, the QBs and RBs worked on executing clean handoffs for interior runs. Then, the offensive skill positions gathered together to run passing drills. At the same time, on the far field, the O-line worked on combo blocks, with one guy peeling off to take on a hard-charging second-level player. On the far field, tight ends and running backs were working at picking up rushing outside linebackers. I couldn't see them very clearly, but reports are that Sean Lee was unblockable, regardless of who he faced.
In the next drill, it was again clear that the focus of the day was nickel, as inside linebackers Bruce Carter, Dan Connor and Sean Lee lined up with the defensive backs as they faced off against the offensive skill positions. Downwind of them, Rob Ryan and defensive line coach Brian Baker worked the rest of the front seven guys (including backup ILBs Caleb McSurdy and Orie Lemon) on what looked like a lane integrity drill.
The team then broke into its final full squad period, and sought to implement all the drills they had worked for the last two hours. Because the day's pedagogical thrust was nickel packages, the vast majority of the plays were passes. A few highlights:
-Dan Connor and Sean Lee killed consecutive plays with well-timed run blitzes. I think the biggest position upgrade from 2011 will be at inside linebacker, where the team has turned a liability into a real strength. We already knew what Sean Lee could do (and he's looked even better), but both Carter and Connor have looked great as well.
-Raymond Radway was pulled by disgusted coaches after he lined up on the wrong side. He was not the only offender; later, receivers coach Jimmy Robinson threw down his playsheet when Dwayne Harris dropped a ball that hit him in the chest.
In rapid sequence, we got a glimpse of that Barry Church has to offer. First, he blitzed on a running play and, even though he was off-balance, managed to make a play on DeMarco Murray. Then, a play or two later, he simply couldn't keep up with Dez Bryant on a deep crossing route. Soon after, he stuffed a screen pass intended for Lawrence Vickers. At present, he has the ability to make plays around the line of scrimmage, but can be exposed in the passing game. To underscore this, Dez abused him again a few plays later. If Church can't play better in coverage, I can't imagine opposing teams will fail to notice or to exploit it.
-Several of you questioned the fact that I ranked Dan Bailey as the tenth-best player on the team, but the dude is money. He was 4-4 on field goal attempts, and has now missed a grand total of one kick in seven camp practices. A year ago, we were treated to breathless daily tallies of the kickers' progress. Bailey's consistency has made kicker into a non-issue.
-Another of my surprise rankings, Clifton Geathers, was really disruptive, both in one-on-one drills and later, during the team period. He's tall, and looks a bit like a more dynamic Chris Canty. One thing is for certain: with his height and huge wingspan, he'll be at the center of all kick block teams.
The Cowboys wrapped up practice by working on the two-minute drill (which correlates strongly to the nickel packages). As he did for the Blue-White scrimmage, Garrett challenged his team by creating a specific situation: Romo and the first-stringers got the ball trailing 28-24 with under two minutes left. He moved them downfield, aided by a nice pass to Dez and a phantom pass interference penalty on Scandrick, who had Tim Benford covered. The call elicited a delicious string of filthy epithets from Rob Ryan.
On the next play, Romo hit Bryant with a gorgeous fade pattern in the left corner of the end zone. This probably sounds like a broken record, but Bryant is poised for a huge, breakout year. I think he's the most athletic receiver in the team's history. He can do things with his body while in the air that I've rarely, if ever, seen.
The second team then took the field, with the same situation. This time, the star was Cole Beasley, who caught three passes, drew another critical pass interference penalty (this one in the end zone) and capped it off with a TD grab of a Kyle Orton pass as practice ended.
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