After three days of work on base packages (including nickel defense) and another that focused on the two-minute and no-huddle situations, the Cowboys added the next layer of playbook installation, turning their attention to the red zone, an area on the field that has been an albatross in recent years. Because they were coming off a rest day, the team didn't dive right into full contact; rather, they eased back into hitting, building to a point: while the beginning of practice was a comparatively relaxed affair, things got increasingly physical and energetic. The last set of drills, wherein the skill position and back seven guys ran seven-on-seven and the O-line and D-line went head-to-head, featured some downright salty one-on-ones.
This escalation was capped off by a final team period in which, as is normal, tackling was forbidden - but everything short of tackling seemed to be permissible. In particular, the defensive guys spent the session chirping, rallying, celebrating big hits or turnovers and generally causing a ruckus. In my summary post, I suggested that defensive players might well have spent the off day stewing over the fact that the offense "won" Wednesday's scrimmage. They certainly played as if they wanted to get the bad taste of losing out of their mouths, and had the edge during Friday's affair, often by a wide margin.
Because I spent the duration of Wednesday's practice watching the offense, I opted for an inversion, doing the same with the defensive guys on Friday, only taking in the offensive goings-on whenever they joined Kiffin's troops on the near field. After three days of running breathlessly back and forth between the two fields to get a glimpse of everything, I think I will henceforward proceed as the best teams do during the draft, sitting tight and letting the action come to me.
The team didn't have a fully organized "blue period" before the regularly scheduled practice today. Instead, they had a kind of "by appointment only" affair: small groups of players working closely with their respective position coaches on the nuances of technique. It was the standard fare: firing out, hand placements, first steps, etc. With fewer pupils in each group than he normally has, each coach was able to get more teaching time in. For the young guys, who are probably just now starting to realize both the import and the difficulty of playing with technical precision under fire, this kind of work can be invaluable.
Once the horn sounded to signal the start of practice, the team split up into offense and defense, with each taking one of the two practice fields. On the far field, the offense went through the plays from today's sheet; the defense worked on gap assignments on the near field. As is usually the case at the beginning of practice, this was done at little more than walk-through pace, with the intention to get the players low-speed reps so that they can focus on details that they would be asked to implement at high speed (and high impact!) later in the practice session. Then, they joined together to run these scripts against each other.
On Wednesday, you may recall, one of the points of emphasis was getting into the next play quickly and efficiently. This made sense given that the topic at hand was two-minute situations. Today, that emphasis continued, even though they worked two-minute situations only tangentially, as they pertained to the red zone. So, when the players went through the daily sheet, they did so at half-speed, but they still tried to hustle between plays. Once they had jogged through a given call, a ball boy sprinted forward to spot the ball and the next group hustled to the line...and then ran the play itself rather casually. Clearly, end-of-half efficiency is important to Garrett; I'll have more on this, as it pertains to the head coach himself, below.
After the daily pat-and-go, warm-up, and stretching sessions, they were ready to go. The first order of business for the defensive units was to practice generating turnovers. The linemen and linebackers practiced coming up behind a player and punching the ball out from behind, while the defensive backs worked once again on their fumble-inducing "Peanut punch." All three units spent time on scooping up fumbles. It appears the coaching staff doesn't want defenders merely falling on the ball; rather, they want them to practice securing and scoring. And they want this to be a priority; this was the third time in five practices the defensive players worked these drills.
Next, the front seven players gathered together to work on proper spacing and timing for blitz fits. As they did this, defensive backs worked on another turnover drill, one that is familiar to anybody who has watched the scouting combine: a DB drops back in the direction indicated by the coach holding a ball, and then tracks the ball, trying to "highpoint" it. Next, the corners, who, in Kiffin's defense, will be responsible to outside contain against the run, worked on positioning themselves on a blocker's outside shoulder, and then getting off that block to "tackle" the runner should he opt to take the ball outside. While they did this, linebackers worked in a similar vein, getting off a block to get to a ballcarrier (but for inside runs).
Meanwhile, the defensive linemen repeated an earlier drill in which they worked on firing out on the movement of the ball rather than sound or player movement such as the center jerking up, moving his other arm, etc. Defensive line assistant Leon Lett played "center" and served up a variety of other movements and "hut"-like sounds in an effort to drawing his players offside - and was frequently successful. Later, Romo used a hard count to draw an offsides call during a two-minute situational drill, a result that wasn't exactly embraced by the defensive coaching staff.
Next, the defensive players were joined by the offensive skill players to work on passing drills. As might be expected, TEs tried their moves against safeties, CBs faced off against receivers, and linebackers covered RBs. The running backs, particularly the top four of DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle, are all good-to-excellent receivers. For backs, they run good, crisp patterns and all appear to have good hands. On the other hand, Dante Rosario and, to a greater degree, Andre Smith, are lumbering in comparison to their position mates. A couple of highlights: the sneaky-fast Escobar beat Matt Johnson on a post and Sean Lee finished off the session with superb coverage on Tanner, stepping in front of him for what might well have been a pick six.
The offensive players returned to the far field, and were replaced by defensive guys wearing multicolored balaclavas to signify that they were eligible receivers during coverage assignment drills. As they did this, the defensive linemen polished their timing and spacing on twists and stunts. For example, DeMarcus Ware would take one step upfield, then hesitate just long enough to let the defensive tackle, who was working the offensive guard's outside shoulder, cross him before cutting sharply to his left on an inside rush, to the spot vacated by the trailing guard. Sure enough, the D-line used an array of stunts and twists during the team period, usually to great effect.
The next team period saw our Beloved 'Boys working through the day's playsheet, this time wearing helmets. The defense was dominant, especially early in the session. The offense had little to no success running the ball, especially inside; on one running play, Murray was stymied at the line of scrimmage, prompting defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to distribute some butt-pats and hoarse "attaboy"s. On the other side of the coaching spectrum, as the offense was setting up at the line on another play, Jason Garrett was yelling at them to "tighten up" their spacing. When they failed to do so, he angrily told them to get back in a huddle, whereupon they ran the play again.
The offensive unit's dark night of the soul came during the second segment of this period. Over a five play span, when both the first and second teams came to the line of scrimmage, the offense seemed confused and couldn't get lined up right. The coaching staff kept stopping them and either subbing in another group or making them huddle up again. So, after they had gotten beat physically in the first segment, they fell apart mentally for a bit of the second.
When the offense did get it in gear, they offered an interesting play from 12 personnel wherein Witten initially lined up flexed left, with Escobar as the F-back offset right. Escobar went in motion, lining up as the inline "Y" on the right side, then Witten went in motion, joining him on that side in what was now a "heavy" right formation. The Cowboys faked a run in that direction, and Romo rolled out to his left, where he hit a crossing Witten. Not a huge gain, but a really interesting play design.
This was followed by a special teams period, in which the team worked on punting from the end zone and returning punts from teams backed up inside their 20. On a couple of occasions, special teams coach Rich Bisaccia had one of his outside defenders move inside just before the snap to help block the punt, and forcing the punt team to realign its blocking assignments on the fly. This coaching staff likes to raise the stakes whenever possible, as a way of getting their players used to the crucible of competition.
Case in point: as he did on Wednesday, Garrett raised the stakes for the final team period by introducing pressure-packed situations. In the first, the offense trailed 19-17, with forty seconds on the clock and the ball at their own forty yard line. Romo thrice hit Cole Beasley, and punctuated his effort with a quick sideline pass to Witten, who stepped out of bounds to stop the clock with twelve seconds left, much to secondary coach Jerome Henderson's distaste: "you've got to [bleep] keep him inbounds!" he yelled. "Automatic Dan" Bailey came on and connected for a "game-winning" 43-yard field goal.
In the next sequence, Garrett allowed Romo and crew a touch over a minute and a single time out to traverse about 70 yards and reverse a two-point deficit. A scintillating completion to Dez Bryant got them in position for Anthony Armstrong to make a pretty one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone for the clinching score. A third sequence further raised the stakes: again trailing by two and without a time out, the offensive unit had to go the length of the field. The star of this drive was Anthony Armstrong, who made several nice catches on short patterns to get them to the 30, where the defense stiffened, forcing a long field goal attempt. Again, Bailey was true, this time from 52, and the first teamers finished three-for-three in pressure scenarios.
But it wasn't just the players who were polishing their two-minute games. When the Kyle Orton and the second unit took their turn at scenario number two above, driving into FG range with fewer than 20 seconds on the clock, Garrett came onto the field and stood with the referee, allowing the clock to go to 6 seconds before calling time out. Redball has been under intense scrutiny for his end-of-half decision-making; apparently, he's subjecting not only the players but also the head coach to game situations.
Daily Position Group Microscope: Safeties. The position that many pundits claimed would be the defense's undoing is, I'm happy to say, in excellent hands. In fact, I'll be so bold as to say that safety is a real strength, both in terms of talent and depth. Several things had to happen for such a claim to be remotely tenable: Barry Church had to come back from his Achilles injury to play as forcefully as he did this time last year; Will Allen had to prove he had some game left in his old legs; Matt Johnson had to stay healthy long enough to get much-needed developmental snaps; and J. J. WIlcox had to possess the natural instincts and physicality that team scouts believed they saw on tape. Thus far, each of these has come to pass.
Jerome Henderson's charges are playing smart, disciplined and, most impressively, physical football. Or at least the top guys are. After the four guys I've already mentioned sit several players with significant holes in their games. We know what Danny McCray's limitations in coverage are. Eric Frampton is a solid special teamer, and could conceivably be a fifth safety on a team with less depth. The player who has been the biggest disappointment to me is my pet cat, Jakar Hamilton; although he plays a tough, physical game, he struggles to sink in his drops, and thus consistently allows too much separation. In red zone drills at the end of practice, he just couldn't close quickly enough to keep guys from getting into the end zone.
Player of the Day: Anthony Armstrong. With Miles Austin sitting out today's practice, it gave the wideouts further down the depth chart an opportunity for more, and more meaningful, snaps. Several of them took full advantage, none more so than Armstrong, who made several excellent and/ or clutch catches. The best was a real doozy: a low fade in the right corner of the endzone during the second full team period that a turning, twisting Armstrong brought in despite near-perfect coverage by Micah Pellerin.
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