Cowboys Training Camp Report, Practice Number Nine: Returning To College

Guess who got a few reps with the D-linemen in practice on Tuesday? - Jim Rogash

On the last of five consecutive practice days, the Cowboys reviewed advanced lessons from the first eight classes, and introduced some new material, with introductory study of goal-line and short-yardage situations.

Over the course of this year's camp, the Cowboys players have traveled an educational trajectory, so to speak, beginning as undergraduates by studying broad, general concepts, and moving, over the course of each practice, into graduate work's increasingly specific studies. On Tuesday, to tease out this metaphor, they went back to the alma mater to work on a second undergraduate degree, in goal line and short yardage studies. As might be expected, today's classes were the equivalent of general ed: the coaching staff introduced their pupils to the broadest concepts, with the expectation that increased specificity and specialization is on the horizon.

The morning walk-through featured a lot of special teams work, as well some material from the short yardage chapters of the team's respective playbooks. As a result, the team eschewed the traditional Blue Period, in which the second- and third-teamers get extra work, and brought the entire squad onto the field at 3:30 for a 4:00 practice. They worked without helmets, concentrating especially on their fits in goal line situations, with special focus on position, spacing, and assignment. As the defense chewed through the playbook, none other than Jason Garrett served as the "scout team" quarterback.

As this was happening, Cowboys fans were treated to a happy sight: Jay Ratliff working with Leon Lett in the near field's East end zone. They worked alone for quite some time, with special emphasis on hand-fighting. Ratliff was bouncing up and down, such that, more than anything, they resembled two boxers sparring. Thankfully, BTB member YumaCactus was there with his camera to capture the action, and was kind enough to share these images with us:

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As you can see, he wasn't dressed out; nevertheless, Ratliff later took a few reps in a basic, helmet-less, low-impact defensive line drill (he's to the left, in blue):

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To my mind, this was all good news, and suggests that the old warrior upon whom so much depends is getting close to rejoining the fray.

Before we go on, a quick hat tip to YumaCactus for these images. He'll be in Oxnard for the rest of the week; hopefully, we can continue to benefit from his photographic largesse!

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Okay, on to the practice. At 4:00, the team gathered together on the near field and began as they always do, with a helmet-less jog-through of the material from the day's playsheet. This gives everyone, from coaches to players to fans, a comprehensive overview of the day's agenda. Today's checklist was readily evident: running and passing from heavy sets, underneath route combinations, long-yardage passing situations. Indeed, we saw an afternoon's worth of work built to develop skills in these areas.

Next every day is the standard warm-up, which consists of a "pat-and-go" session in which QBs throw to receivers and defensive backs, and then an extensive stretching session conducted under the watchful eyes of the team's sizeable training staff. An unusual aspect of today's "pat-and-go" was that the passes were actually thrown by the team's various punters and kickers. If you recall, special teams coach Rich Bisaccia had his charges practice fake field goals a few days ago. Most of this work involved plays in which the holders, who are the team's punters, would pop up, roll out, and hit a receiver - usually a tight end - downfield. Watching them throw today, it made me wonder if this was passing practice designed to help with just such specialized ST fakeries.

Suitably warm, the offense began to work on the proper timing and coordination for screen passes, particularly for "rocket" or "tunnel" screens, wherein the offensive line and any receivers to the play side get downfield in an effort to create a tunnel through which the receiver can run. Later, in the team periods, we saw the offense run several of these, out of different personnel groupings and with slight variations. Not only are they blitz beaters, as I mentioned in my shorter summary of the day's action, but they also serve as quasi-running plays, a low-risk positive yardage option on first and second downs.

Many times during camp practices, we see the offense work on a category of play designed for a certain situation or down-and-distance while the defense works on the defense that fits that same situation. Thus, when both units come together in the team periods, each has rehearsed half of the probable situational pairing. Today, that was short-yardage passing: the offense worked on plays featuring multiple underneath routes, while the defense concentrated on dropping into short zones and converging on the receiver in order to keep him from getting any yards after the catch; after all, a lot of first downs are achieved with just such a second-effort. In a welcome departure from last year, the defense proved particularly adept at closing on the receiver and limiting his gains in the subsequent team periods.

In a similar pairing, the offensive line worked on double teams and the defensive line worked on splitting them. As they have in the past, Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack divvied up the work, with Callahan taking the interior players and Pollack joining forces with Wes Phillips to coach the tackles and tight ends. Each group practiced double-teaming a down lineman and then, once secure, having one blocker peel off to make a second-level block. Conversely, the defensive linemen worked on getting narrow to split a double team and also practiced getting off the single block once one of the linemen had moved away to make his second-level contact. As with the pass patterns, both groups had the opportunity to put the day's teachings to use in the competitive and team periods with which practice concluded.

The line groups remained in their respective end zones as the rest of the team joined on the near field for some competitive passing drills. As they usually do, the coaches broke this down into component parts before assembling these components later in the day. Here, we had tight ends and running backs facing off against linebackers (running the short zone plays I discussed earlier) and safeties and receivers versus corners. A couple of highlights: Jared Green beat Brandon Carr badly on a post pattern for a touchdown and, a couple plays later, B.W. Webb carried Anthony Armstrong into the end zone, keeping his body between the receiver and the ball, making an end zone interception.

As I discussed in my summary post, we're seeing a much higher level of competition in these periods than we did in 2012. Down-roster WRs and DBs are making terrific plays when they go head-to-head. Last year, we'd witness the occasional good catch by the likes of Andre Holmes or Raymond Radway, often due to a coverage breakdown by a Lionel Smith or Mana Silva. This time around, even players unlikely to make the roster, such as Amos Anthony and Xavier Brewer, are offering strong, competitive reps. As a result, everyone is made better.

Next the defense split into two groups, with half of each group sporting colored balaclavas to designate them as offensive players, and they went through the day's playsheet at three-quarter speed, focusing on proper assignments. After each play, Jerome Henderson, Jason Garrett (who was overseeing this drill in his "walkaround" capacity) or Matt Eberflus would offer specific corrections: "You've got to turn two steps later," "don't drop quite so far," or "If you line up one yard in, he won't get inside you." As they did this, the offense was on the other field, working through the very plays the balaclava-clad defenders were running.

That done, and a water break finished, the team moved into their second team period, and first in helmets. The first line item was goal line, which might explain why the coaches gathered the entire team together before embarking upon the drill proper. Once they did, as I mentioned in my practice summary, we were treated to some "jumbo" personnel packages, specifically a "23" (2RB, 3TE) package that, in fact, featured four tight ends, with one of them, usually Dante Rosario, functioning as a fullback in a power I set. At this point, the heretofore mellow practice changed its attitude, as both units got after it.

That said, its important to remember that this was the first day of the short-yardage installation. As such, the players are still working out the broader conceptual kinks, in a sense learning to walk before they run. With this in mind, the coaches had both the first and second teams run through a series of goal line plays in full pads (with the twos capping it off with a pretty Orton-to-Rosario TD pass off a play fake) and then had them take off their helmets for a walk-through version of the material, particularly middle runs. I'd expect to see further work on these packages in future practices and, as the players move from more general lessons to graduate work, to see more, and more focused, hitting.

The next two segments of the team period saw the players putting their helmets back on around midfield to work on the short yardage packages they had worked through earlier in the practice. Garrett had the officiating staff mark off down and distance for these plays, all of which were either third or fourth down and two or fewer yards to go. This set of plays saw Tony Romo rolling out more than we have seen him in the recent past, often on play action bootlegs.

This was followed by a special teams period that focused on punt and punt return scenarios. The first-team punt return unit currently includes Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Kyle Wilber, Dante Rosario, Sean Lissemore, Danny McCray, J. J. Wilcox, Matt Johnson, Alex Albright, and Eric Frampton (who might have been subbing in for Mo Claiborne, who missed practice with a migrane), with Dwayne Harris as the returner. All of these save Harris have appeared on at least one other first-team ST unit. So, as you make up your 53-man rosters, be sure to take these names into consideration, as well as those of Phillip Tanner, DeVonte Holloman, and Ernie Sims, all three of whom join the bulk of the aforementioned fellows on the punt coverage unit.

The team enjoyed a quick water break before gearing up for the day's competitive sessions. These were structured as they have been for the past several days: seven-on-seven and OL-DL matches. In the passing drill, the team closed the book on the underneath zone material they had worked on earlier in the day, returning instead to the third-down and no-huddle plays they had practiced previously this week, applying them to obvious passing situations (3rd and 4th and long). The line session featured a lot of twists and other line games by the defensive guys (material they had worked on in position drills, natch), and the overall report is that the offensive line did quite well in handing opponents off, stoning them at the line and not getting off balance. An exception: Lissemore abused Costa with a nice arm-over to get quick penetration. Overall, however, Callahan and Pollack's charges have made impressive gains, and are priming themselves for the final exam, operating against angry men wearing different colors.

The final team period was a competitive session; several times, we saw ballcarriers tackled to the ground, including Dwayne Harris twice in a two-play sequence in which he was flung to the ground by his jersey by DeMarcus Ware after a reverse and then, after taking one of rocket screens upfield that we saw the offensive unit working on at the beginning of practice, he was greeted at the end of the tunnel by a couple of angry defenders who knocked him to the turf. On the day, we saw several more screens called, with mixed results. After this, they worked through the card for third-and-long plays, most of which featured three and four wide receivers.

The day's playsheet was applied to a realistic game scenario to conclude the afternoon's festivities. The "blue" team took possession with a three point lead and about two and a half minutes remaining, with their intention to run out the clock. They failed and had to punt to the "white" team, who drove about fifteen yards before the drive fizzled and ended on a fourth down Orton incompletion. All in all, it was an underwhelming end to a day that had, to that point, grown impressively in intensity.

Like the Cowboys, I'll be back on Thursday to cover the final two afternoon sessions before the team jets Canton-ward. Hopefully, we'll both return from our time away refreshed and ready to tackle some more two-a-days. Until then, BTBers!

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