After spending training camp's first three days working on the base offense, the Cowboys switched gears yesterday, opening the playbook the the Chapter entitled "Two Minute Offense: The Basics." Whereas we had seen a preponderance of two-tight-end sets in day one through three, yesterday, we saw a lot more exotic formations. And, in the team periods, we saw the team work on tempo: getting in and out of the huddle quickly (to facilitate this, they often huddled up much closer to the line than is usual), and operating efficiently in no-huddle situations.
In last night's brief recap post, I mentioned that they deployed in a lot of "11" personnel (one back and one tight end). While this was true, what was interesting was where they were deployed. We often saw backs in the slot or tight ends split out wide. We also saw interesting looks from the standard (two TE) personnel package, in which they were sometime both aligned tight to one side, and sometimes split out wide. And finally, we saw a lot of WR-plus formations: three- and four-receiver sets, often with empty backfields.
Because it was apparent from the Twitter stream emerging from the morning walk-through that the day's work would focus on end-of-half formations and situations, I made the executive decision to stay exclusively with the offense throughout the afternoon. As a result, there will be precious little info about the defensive drills, excepting those times when the defensive guys came over to the far field where the offense was stationed throughout the day to join their teammates in one-on-one work.
As was the case Tuesday, there was no "blue period" before Wednesday's affair. Instead, the second and third teams hit the field alongside the veterans and, at 4:00 sharp, the entire team rolled up its collective sleeves and got to work. The first order of business was special teams, specifically kick return. The primary return candidates, Lance Dunbar, J.J. Wilcox and Dwayne Harris, took up residence in the end zone while the rest of the unit worked on the correct spacing and positioning to get the proper block on their respective coverage guy. At one point, as they were going through an actual return at three-quarter speed, special teams coach Rich Bisaccia yelled at them to "freeze," and made adjustments, showing his charges how proper positioning could better open up a crease for his returners.
It's still way too early to begin noting who is "starting" on special teams, as the coaches are still rotating guys through the exercises. But the core guys from last year - Alex Albright, Danny McCray, Phillip Tanner - are, at present, still Bisaccia's core. And there's one more name to add to this list: J. J. Wilcox. Not only does he show up on every special teams unit's first team, he's playing important roles, such as the personal protector on the punt team. Clearly, the coaches want to carve out a high-snap niche for him as he learns the nuances of playing safety. The question is: are they doing this because they want to see whether or not he can be a cheap replacement for Danny McCray, their current safety-cum-special-teams-dynamo?
After this, they gathered for the first team period. As per usual, this was done without helmets, and was therefore little more than an uptempo walkthrough. This offers a preview of the work to come; it was immediately apparent that Romo would spend the majority of the afternoon in shotgun. On one interesting play, the Cowboys jogged through a wide receiver screen in which Cole Beasley was aligned in the left slot and, at the snap, Tyron Smith fired out to his left, leading Beasley after the diminutive one gathered in a hitch pass. Later, Kiffin answered this with a defensive wrinkle: instead of rushing, DE Monte Taylor covered TE Andre Smith on a short crossing pattern, showing enough athleticism to swat away the intended pass.
After a typical warm-up and stretching session, the offense drilled on getting into the next play in two minute situations. After a completion, they worked on getting quickly and efficiently to the line. As the players scrambled to the new line of scrimmage, Romo would call out a single word, and his guys would quickly get into the correct formation. What was interesting to me was that this alignment often reflected where the players ended up at the end of the previous play. If, for example, Jason Witten ran a crossing pattern from left to right, on the next play, he would line up on the right side. That way, the offense didn't waste precious seconds with players crossing the formation to get into position. This will bear more scrutiny moving forward.
As he is wont, Jason Garrett had his guys working on situational football, even in an offense-on-air drill. A key part of this was clock consciousness. Sometimes, if the completion was too far downfield, they would stop the action as if a timeout had been called. On completions to the middle of the field, the QB would simulate spiking the ball. After hitting Cole Beasley on a short crossing pattern, Kyle Orton quickly got the team to the line and spiked the ball, drawing praise from the assembled coaches.
The offense next broke into position groups, with work on elements of the passing game. The backs and tight ends practiced catching the ball, tucking it and turning upfield to face tacklers, represented by staffers holding pads. The offensive linemen worked on keeping their feet and balance after initially striking an oncoming pass rusher. They next joined the tight ends to revisit earlier work on picking up defensive end/ outside linebacker combinations after the TE has motioned to that side. Receivers coach Derek Dooley had his guys work on hand fighting and, it appeared, the nuances of spacing and the timing of releases when in the tight bunch and stack formations that we would see the team employ in the team periods.
After these exercises, we saw the quarterbacks and receivers work on specific routes, focusing on proper depth. The reason for this became apparent later, once they began to combine these routes. Route combinations executed at the proper depth place maximum stress on a defense, giving them impossible decisions about who to cover. Imprecise depth or confusion about which route to run gives the defense an advantage, with the worst scenario being that in which two receivers end up in the same zone. When that happened to poor Amos Anthony later in team period, he got an earful from the coaches. As this was happening, the backs and tight ends drilled pass blocking and blitz pickup, as was discussed at length in last night's preliminary report.
After a water break, we were treated to another team period, the first with helmets. A couple of highlights were a nifty draw play to Phillip Tanner, who, as reports have indicated, has lost about ten pounds this offseason and looks much quicker as a result. Even though the day's theme was no-huddle, we still saw a good deal of running; Tanner's scamper was by no means the only running play from the session. Indeed, DeMarco Murray had several nice, physical inside runs, each of which was punctuated by a group of trailing defensive backs trying to punch the ball out of his grasp.
The next segment of the team period saw them return to work on executing the no-huddle, this time against defenders. The aforementioned Murray was involved in an audience-pleasing exchange with Barry Church: on one end run, Barry Church came up and smacked Murray near the sidelines. About three plays later, Murry caught a little swing pass, and headed up the sidelines. When Church closed, Murray dished out a little payback, with a physical smack. Both players are physical guys who love contact and they have a little difficulty dialing back the "hit-o-meter." I'd guess the Hall of Fame game can't happen soon enough for the likes of them.
On another play, rookie wideout Terrance Williams caught a deep post over the middle. The defender covering him? Backup MLB Caleb McSurdy. As we have discussed in detail on these pages, the middle 'backer in Kiffin's system must be able to "run the seam," dropping into the deep middle to fill in the zone between the two deep safeties. Both starter Sean Lee and McSurdy have demonstrated the ability to do this. Nice.
Next up was a special teams period. First, the offensive guys who play special teams practiced tackling technique, which they don't do as part of their traditional offensive drills. Next, Bisaccia worked his men through punt return work, with a focus on proper spacing and, for the gunners, releasing and tracking the ball. Dwayne Harris had a nice return up the sideline, as the outside man got pinched inside and gave up contain. Harris has terrific field vision as a punt returner; he's emerging as a dynamic return threat.
The team then broke into two distinct exercises: a seven-on-seven session in which they reviewed the play's from today's sheet on one end of the field and, on the other, pass rush drills in which offensive tackles took turns going one-on-one with defensive ends, and interior three went against DTs. These were then combined in sets of two. Bill Callahan would call out two positions - "right guard, center!" and their D-line opposites will take their place, offering various pass rush moves - bull rushes, arm overs, twists - for the lineman to try and stymie.
Practice concluded with a final team period. The final exam testing all the day's teachings was situational: two minute work with a game clock, playclock and officiating crew. Garrett offered his players two realistic game situations. In the first, the Cowboys trailed 19-17 with less than 30 seconds remaining on the clock, and took possession near midfield. After an impressive drive, a Romo-to-Bryant end zone pass was intercepted by Brandon Carr, who had superb position and wrestled the ball away from Dez as both fell to the ground, earning some love from Will Allen.
Next, they began at their own 31 with 1:52 remaining, trailing 23-21. This time, Romo engineered a "game-winning drive" featuring short completions to Austin, Witten, an out of bounds pass that stopped the clock, a slant to Bryant, and another to Austin, this time on a crossing pattern over the middle. The team ran to to the line as the clock dipped under a minute and Romo threw behind Murray. With 52 seconds remaining, Murray ran a draw up the middle for a nice gain, bringing up third down at the 20 with fewer than 40 seconds remaining. Another handoff to Murray took him out of bounds, stopping the clock so the field goal unit could come on the field. Automatic Dan Bailey split the uprights and the first team offense won 24-23, earning bragging rights during the team's off day.
On Friday, camp resumes; the defense will have an opportunity for redemption. I'll be there, of course, bringing you my impressions. Until then, loyal BTB readers!
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