In a recent podcast conversation, I mentioned that the Cowboys' annual Blue-White scrimmage, which takes place at the end of the first week of camp (and is therefore neatly situated between the beginning of camp and the first preseason game), serves as a mid-term exam of sorts, an opportunity for Jason Garrett and his coaches to gauge their pupils' progress as they prepare for the final: actual NFL action.
If we tease out this analogy, today's practice session could be seen as studying for the mid-term. The team worked through the plays from the first week that will appear on tomorrow's callsheet. With this in mind, we saw a heavy dose of the drills that we had witnessed in the past week: technique (footwork, body placement, handfighting), and creating (or preventing) turnovers.
That said, there were a couple of new wrinkles unveiled in both the offensive and special teams periods. I'll have more on these below; for now, suffice it to say that these were packages, such as three tight end formations (13 personnel) that the team will need on the goal line, or situational plays, like pooch punts, which the players need to be prepared to execute if the in-game situation demands it.
The Cowboys' list of wounded isn't growing like it did at this time last year; rather, it remains a protean entity wherein one man returns to health only to have another take his place on the injured rolls. Several players were sidelined with nicks that, while small, might suffice to keep them from playing Sunday afternoon. While Miles Austin and Jason Hatcher, both sidelined on Friday, returned to action, Dez Bryant and DeMarcus Ware (as well as Cole Beasley) missed their fist action of camp. It remains an open question whether or not they, or several other injured players, will be able to participate in the much-anticipated scrimmage.
For reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, the Cowboys decided to schedule practice an hour and fifteen minutes later than they have all camp. They began work as they have on several occasions, with a "blue period" in which the guys who find themselves further down the depth chart had an opportunity to get some coaching and take a few much-needed reps. At the start of the period, Jason Garrett assembled them and told them that the next half hour presented a "hell of an opportunity to get better." Tomorrow (and most likely in the Hall of Fame game, which most of the starters will miss) they'll get to demonstrate whether, and to what degree, they embraced that opportunity.
Once the starters joined them on the field, the horn sounded at 5:15 and the full practice was underway. The first order of business, as it has been all camp, was a special teams period. Today's session focused on kick return. As they did the last time we saw this exercise, the return team focused on executing proper spacing and position in order to open up maximal return lanes for the returner. Moreover, it offered a premature glimpse into the minds of the coaching staff as they begin to formulate a workable 53-man roster. The starting kick return team consisted of:
Front row: Danny McCray, Ernie Sims, Alex Albright, DeVonte Holloman, Eric Frampton
Next row: Kyle Wilber, Dante Rosario (up), Sean Lissemore (back), Cameron Sheffield
Protector: J.J. Wilcox,
Returner: Lance Dunbar
When the units switched, the first-team kick coverage guys featured the same players, save for Lissemore and Rosario, who were replaced by the team's starting corners, Mo Claiborne and Brandon Carr. Looking at these two units offers insight into a belief among the coaches that the nine players on both starting kickoff units are seen as good 'teamers, and, one might think, guys who are fairly likely to make the squad.
Next up was a jog-through of the material on the day's playsheet, wherein nobody wore his helmet except Tony Romo, who reportedly wants to get used to calling and executing plays with his on. We saw a lot of the Cowboys' new base package, 12 personnel, as well as a goodly amount of three wide receiver sets. What I found fascinating was the communication between the "sideline" and the players in an effort to be more efficient in and out of the huddle. A coach would shout out the personnel grouping ("Twelve, c'mon, twelve"), as Bill Callahan gave the play number to Romo, who glanced at his wristband as he walked to the huddle, which had by that time gathered around Travis Frederick. The team stayed in the huddle for just an instant before breaking and moving briskly to the line. Often, to facilitate this, they line up a mere five yards from where the ball is placed.
Curiously, Kevin Kowalski, who was displaced to the second team with the return of left guard Nate Livings, has been moved over to the right side, where he's backing up David Arkin. The tenacious Ray Dominguez remains the second-team LG. I'm not sure what this means. Perhaps it's designed to create competition between Kowalski and Arkin; perhaps they believe the LG competition will be between Livings and Ron Leary. Whatever the case, it's one of those subtle depth chart shifts that occur in every camp as guys jockey for positions.
After the standard warm-up and stretching session, the offense and defense went to separate fields. On the far field, the offense quickly went through blocking for screen passes before separating into position groups. The tight end and receiving groups each worked on a fumble-prevention exercise in which each player caught the ball and then had to run through a gauntlet of men trying to grab at it. On one occasion, receivers coach Derek Dooley told Terrance Williams "That's it; that's it. That's where you gotta hold it" to positively affirm that he had the ball "high and tight," where it is harder to dislodge.
The offensive line then joined the tight ends to work on various double-team and combination blocks on down lineman and linebackers. One example: the guys standing in as defenders executed a "scrape exchange" (for more on this from one of our savvy members, go here) wherein a defensive end works inside and an inside linebacker loops outside (scrapes), to take outside contain. O-line coach Frank Pollack told his charged to "let the scraper scrape." In other words, they wanted the outside O-lineman to stay on the DE rather than switching to the looping linebacker, as he would to counter a stunt. That way, the O-lineman on the inside can get the inside 'backer and somebody else can deal with the "scraper."
Then, we saw RBs and TEs go against LBs running underneath combo routes on one section of the far field, while receivers went head-to-head versus corners on another. Highlights: Mo Claiborne made a nice play to knock the ball away from Dwayne Harris after the dreadlocked one had gained separation and seemingly made the reception. In another, Brandon Magee closed quickly on Andre Smith after the tight end made a catch, limiting him to a short gain. It's this ability to close that characterizes linebackers in Kiffin's defense; the goal is to keep everything in front and limit yardage, forcing other teams to execute long drives to get points. Magee's play showed how this is done.
Another critical aspect of Kiffin's scheme is generating turnovers. All week, we have seen the defensive players engage in a variety of drills designed to knock the ball out of offensive players' arms. On a different Andre Smith catch, one linebacker held him up while another stripped the ball from him, just as they had drilled it previously in the week. Lest you think that this isn't a high priority, the eruption of cheers from the defensive staff would have been enough to disabuse you of that notion, and quickly.
The offensive skill players returned to red/ end zone work that they had commenced on Friday, running through a series of pass plays specifically designed to result in end zone completions (also known as touchdowns). Although executed in a variety of ways, these plays all sent a receiver into one of four end zone quadrants, so that they might stress the zone defenses dialed up when teams defend their own goal line. In particular, Romo and Co. worked on hitting receivers running up the hash marks from about 10-15 yards out.
We saw these plays implemented soon thereafter, in the second team period, which was broken into discrete segments. The first of these ended with a beautiful Romo pass down the left seam to Jason Witten, who was blanketed by Barry Church on the play. The offensive guys erupted into cheers, none louder than Dez Bryant, who raised his hands in celebration. Although he had an "off" day, Bryant didn't spend it on the sidelines chewing sunflower seeds. Rather, he spent it as a ballboy of sorts, helping the offensive staff gather balls from receivers and funnel them back into quarterbacks. Let that sink in: the Cowboys best player was happily shagging balls during drills.
It was during this period that the Cowboys unveiled a new personnel package: three tight ends. At one juncture, I heard a coach yell out "13C," and initially thought that it corresponded to a number on Romo's wristband. It was immediately apparent, however, that this was a specific personnel grouping, as Witten, Gavin Escobar and Dante Rosario were all in the hudle. On the afternoon, we were treated to a cornucopia of interesting formations and motions/ realignments involving three tight ends. Several times, they aligned with all three on the same side of the line, in a "heavy" set, only to have one motion the other direction and/ or have another cross the formation to trap the defensive end on the other side. More than once, they passed out of a heavy run look. This will be a fun package to track as the season progresses.
Next, the team returned to special teams work, and introduced a couple other wrinkles: fake field goals and pooch punts. Rich Bisaccia's guys went through a litany of fake field goals wherein the holder, punter Chris Jones, would fake a hold, pop up, roll out, and hit a receiver downfield. This tended to be one of the team's tight ends, who were routinely aligned as the edge blockers on the various field goal units. On one play, Jones rolled out and threw a downfield strike to Jason Witten, who summarily dropped it, perhaps because he was so shocked by the pass' velocity and precision. On others, a direct snap would go to kicker Dan Bailey, who then pooch punted into the corner, with the goal of placing the ball inside the opposing ten. On those plays, Jones functioned as Bailey's personal protector, just as J.J. Wilcox does in standard punt formations.
Before the period was finished, the team cycled through the entire special teams repertoire, as a review for tomorrow's exam. The gunners on punt coverage received special attention from secondary coach Jerome Henderson as they worked on an unenviable task: beating two opposing blockers, tracking the ball in the air while running downfield, handfighting all the way, and still setting the edge in order to contain the returner. Whew; I got tired just watching them.
This was followed by some one-on-one drills: OL vs. DL (with a lot of work on stunt games and twists) and seven-on-seven in the red zone (using the aformentioned end zone playsheet) that served to get the competitive juices flowing in preparation for the final team period. As he has done since the pads came on, Garrett put his guys in game-like situations during the final period. For the first of these, the offense trailed by two with 25 seconds remaining. After a pass out of bounds that hit a small child, Romo connected with the ever-improving Terrance Williams over the middle and then hustled his teammates to the line to spike the ball with 2.4 seconds left. The subsequent field goal was good, and the offense emerged victorious.
The next segment returned to the red/ end zone package that was seen periodically throughout the day. On this occasion, Romo hit Dwayne Harris on a crossing pattern for an uncontested touchdown, which was followed by the field goal team coming on to the field to kick an extra point. Tomorrow, we'll see a similar degree of premeditated reality, as the coaches will carefully control the scripts but much of the stuff that doesn't typically happen in camp - tackling, extra points, returns - will be on the table. It's the closest to actual football both fans and players will have for another week.
Should be a good'un! Enjoy! I'll have an evening report recapping the entire affair.
Daily Position Group Microscope: Tight ends. One of the offseason's dominant storylines was the Cowboys' decision to utilize 12 personnel as their base package. Thus far, this decision is looking like a stroke of genius. Obviously, this group is led by Jason Witten, a Ring of Honor certainty and Hall of Fame candidate. He's not a deluxe athlete; rather, he uses smarts and an innate understanding of physics to get open, block larger, stronger players, etc. And the more I watch Gavin Escobar, the more I see similar traits in him. Like Witten, he's not a size/ speed marvel. Rather, he's what Bill Parcells termed a "football playin' dude," a guy who is a much better player than he is an athlete. On the other side of that equation is James Hanna, who possesses some elite measurables and better-than-advertised hands, route-running, blocking and character. Next up is Dante Rosario, a versatile TE who is also likely to be a core special teams contributor. And although Andre Smith probably won't make the team, he flashes as a blocker. At full health, this is one of, if not the, deepest positions on the team, blessed with a strong incumbent starter and two young, ascending players. If you are the type that worries about the Cowboys, this is one position that should put you at ease.
Player of the Day: Tim Benford. On Friday, Anthony Armstrong took advantage of the opportunity given him by Miles Austin's absence, making several plays in one-on-one drills and capping that off by being a major factor as Tony Romo led the team downfield in a pressurized two-minute situation. On Saturday, it was Benford's turn; he made several outstanding grabs, especially abusing the down-the-roster corners. Curiously, Benford is playing better than he did in camp last year, but is probably further down the seeding chart. That's a testament to the team's depth at the position.
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