In my pre-camp podcast conversation with the illustrious KD Drummond, I noted that NFL teams schedule camp practices around the same principles that drive their in-season practice weeks, in which they spend Wednesday working on the base (first and second down) defense, Thursday on the third down packages and Friday on goal line and two-minute material. In the first two days of camp, we have seen the team adhere to this formula: on day one, we got a callsheet torn from the base offense's playbook; today, we were treated to third down packages.
What that meant was that the defensive personnel were almost entirely in nickle throughout the afternoon. The offense gave us several personnel packages to look at, but were in two tight end (12 personnel) or three receiver sets (11 personnel) most of the time. Throughout the practice, the team worked on techniques specific to success on the "money down." Let's take a look at how the teaching unfolded, shall we?
As will be the case throughout camp, today's work began with the "blue period," during which the second and third string guys got a few extra reps before the officially scheduled 4:00 practice. The team uses this time to get the young'uns extra time with their position coaches before the reps get handed over to players further up the depth chart. They typically work drills that will be revisited later in the practice.
Today, we saw tight ends and running backs working on the kinds of underneath combo routes that Jay Novacek and Daryl Johnston used to run in the go-go 90s. Conversely, the young defensive backs worked on proper assignment, alignment and spacing when defending those routes. One of the keys was that coverage assignments would change depending on motion, and we saw a lot of tight ends in motion today. Here, we saw both offensive and defensive players working on the subtle realignments that occur when a tight end executes even a small shift. Once they run their charges through these drills, the coaching staff typically has them apply what they have learned to actual plays in an 11-on-11 session.
As the rooks work through the day's playlist, the veterans trickle onto the field. At 4:00, the official start of practice, the first order of business is the special teams period. Today's work focused on kickoff returns. Rich Bisaccia enjoined several other coaches to help him break the various return layers into component parts: upmen, middle blockers, wedge guys, returner. Each of these groups was drilled on a specific skillset, in a step-by-step fashion. The middle blockers, for example, worked on dropping to a very specific yard marker and hashmark, then turning to face the opponent. Next, they worked on moving laterally to engage that opponent, then did so against onrushing coverage players. Similarly, the wedge guys worked on gathering together in front of the returner as he aligned himself to catch the ball, then did the same against oncoming kick coverage.
While that was happening, the offensive linemen practiced firing out low and with the proper footwork to help them make effective zone (ZBS) blocks. Throughout the day, we saw Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack divide up their charges and work on specific ZBS techniques, sometimes including TE coach Wes Phillips (who was Callahan's O-line assistant last year). They worked a variety of techniques: double teams wherein one lineman peels off and attaches to a rival inside linebacker; TEs and OTs sealing the edge on stretch plays against a DE and an OLB; one side of the line secures the backside blocks integral to the ZBS scheme's success.
At the same time, the team's quarterbacks worked on footwork in the pocket, navigating a set of agility bags set on the ground as they kept their eyes on downfield receivers. This continued until the horn sounded, calling the entire team together for the day's first 11-on-11 session, which took place sans helmets and at about 3/4 speed (remember, the team hadn't yet stretched and warmed up). This was intended to build on the lessons gleaned from the morning session's walk-through of the same material. They used the same playlist, but ran through it with increased tempo. We'd see it all again, in much saltier fashion, in the final team period.
After the standard warm-up session consisting of "pat-and-go" followed by a fulsome team stretch, our brave 'Boys in Blue broke into position groups. The O-line engaged in some of the drills mentioned above, while the wideouts worked on hand technique to get off of press at the line. The backs and QBs worked on the nuances of the stretch plays that are a key element of a ZBS running scheme, and the linebackers ran through a drill in which they simulated getting around a running back on an edge rush by swatting away a pad and circling around a huge hula-hoop placed on the grass. The D-line went through several exercises in which they worked with rows of dummy bags on swatting and arm-over moves intended to generate upper-body movement in a O-lineman, thus stopping him from using his feet as he pass blocks.
In the next session, we saw defensive drill work that bore fruit later in the full team period. On one end of the near field, the linebackers worked on resisting the lure of play action, taking only one step toward the ballcarrier while reading the play. As it proved, the offense had several play action passes on the daily playsheet, and they failed to suck the linebackers in (although Kiffin chewed out rookie Brandon Magee during the team period for exactly this offense, I believe). At the same time, the safeties worked on getting to the sideline from the middle of the field (as the single-high safety in "Cover-3"); later, Will Allen came over from his middle safety position to nab a pass tipped off of Miles Austin's hands, returning it down the sideline and earning an enthusiastic "attaboy" from the aged Kiffin.
Speaking of Kiffin, in the first two days of practice, we have seen he and his minions install all the basic elements of his 4-3 scheme: DL pass rush drills; CB bump-and-run techniques; single high safeties working on getting to the boundary to defend sideline routes, linebackers working on dropping into short zones and attacking passing lanes to generate interceptions.
As this was happening, the safeties worked on coverage assignments switches when tight ends go into motion, while QBs, RBs and WRs worked on the TE/ RB underneath pattern combos we saw earlier, but now with deeper WR routes added. On the other field, the DBs and LBs joined forces and put on the balaclavas, working on defending the very route combos the offense was running.
After a water break, the field goal units inhabited the near field and rest of the team set up camp on the far field for the culminating team period. The period was broken into three segments, the first of which, as I noted in my short summary of Monday's action, consisted entirely of running plays - and these were the ZBS plays that we have grown accustomed to see in Denver and Houston. Jason Garrett has stressed that the team must find a way to run the ball more effectively than they did in 2012. One way to do this is to simplify the scheme; another is simply to practice it more. They are trying both; we'll see what level of improvement these moves engender.
On at least one play, they set diminutive receiver Cole Beasley deep. Roughly a year ago, you might remember, they tried to send Beasley down the seam in the preseason game at Oakland, but he proved to be too small to gain position on a vertical pass. As a result, he ran very few deep patterns in 2012; they were not his forte. Rather, he made his money using quickness to get open in the underneath zones. Still, if he is to develop into a fully fledged passing threat, Beasley will have to show rival defensive coaches that he can indeed get deep in the NFL. The Cowboys know this and seem to want to work on getting him some "deep tape" this preseason.
For the most part, the defense dominated the team period, particularly on the line, where they disrupted running plays by getting penetration and had a handful of what would have been sacks in a real game. On multiple occasions, the offense tried to revisit the screen game that they unveiled on Sunday; the defense would have none of it. Screens to running backs and bubble screens to wideouts were equally futile, even when the offensive braintrust tried an interesting wrinkle: Romo offered play action on a stretch play to the left, then spun to his right, hitting Harris on a bubble screen that was immediately sniffed out by the defense, who didn't over-pursue on the run fake.
Remember, that was a teaching point from earlier in the session. Its day two; the students are ingesting the material.
Daily Position Group Microscope: Defensive Line. Given Tyrone Crawford's season-ending injury and the news that Anthony Spencer might need surgery to repair a bone bruise, all eyes were, and will likely continue to be, on the defensive line. In watching them work on Monday, it was readily apparent that there are four tiers among the players. Sadly, the top tiers are sparsely populated. DeMarcus Ware is on his own planet; nobody who worked today (remember that Spencer and Jay Ratliff are sidelined with injuries) can match his combination of speed, agility and power. Next up is Jason Hatcher, who is surprisingly agile and has very quick and powerful hands. The next tier is inhabited by Sean Lissemore, who also flashed good quickness, balance, hand placement and power. The remainder of the D-linemen in camp fall into the last category: a collection of guys who seem a bit too ponderous, too off-balance, or too slow-handed to make a real difference. The hope is that somebody like Ben Bass or Cameron Sheffield will emerge, filling the void left by Crawford's injury. Judging from today's work, they (and the rest of the unit) have a long ways to go before that happens.
Player of the Day: Jeris Pendleton. In the midst of an onslaught of bad news for for the defensive line, Pendleton offered a positive report. He plays with tremendous power, and has seemingly caught the coaches' eyes. In the final team period, I heard a coach shout to him that he had "to show it on the field"; the entire defensive coaching staff subsequently exclaimed loudly when he beat David Arkin inside for what would have been at least a pressure and most likely a sack. He looks like a prototypical "one-tech": short and squat, able to play with power and leverage. He's a guy I'll certainly keep an eye on.
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