I believe that one reason the staff is working Rob Petitti so much with the first unit at RT is their confidence in Kurt Vollers to man the spot. It was therefore a concern to see him open the afternoon practice on the sideline with one of the trainers, walking the sideline and doing extra stretches. It was nothing but a false alarm, as Vollers worked the entire afternoon with the second unit at left tackle.
The afternoon began much like the morning, only the initial pace was slower. The team assembled on the far field and began the session working on punt coverage. After fifteen minutes the offense and defense squared off in a half speed drill to test knowledge of plays and recognition of sets by the defense. Where the morning featured base sets, the offense unwrapped its more aggressive passing formations here. It appears the Cowboys will stay relatively elemental, in great part because of Jason Witten's versatility. The offense used a lot of three WR sets, with Terry Glenn lining up as a split end and Keyshawn Johnson lining up in the slot inside either Quincy Morgan or Patrick Crayton. When the Cowboys wanted to spread the defense even more, in something resembling a four WR set, Witten would split wide, standing in the slot opposite Johnson. This caused lots of mismatch problems and will likely do the same for opposing teams this year.
After spending the morning watching the linemen, I spent much of the afternoon session watching Todd Bowles work out the defensive backs in unit drills. Bowles, like Tony Sparano and Kacey Rogers, split his unit into two groups, with the cornerbacks working in one unit and the safeties in another.
The safeties devoted their early time to their positioning, on not getting turned too quickly and burned on combination moves. They also worked on dodging receivers who were attacking them on an angle during running plays. The CB group worked on similar recognition drills. First, they practiced recognizing and jumping slant routes, with Bowles acting as the QB. Every so often, he would instruct the "offensive" player to run a post corner, to see if his corners could adjust to the second move.
Both groups reunited in a wrap-up drill. Bowles had the defensive group ten yards apart from the offensive group. The offensive player would run forwards and try to fake out the defensive player. Any move was allowed. The defensive player had to initiate contact and wrap up. Tackling was not allowed. Jacques Reeves opened the drill by drawing Roy Williams as his defensive counterpart. The two smiled at each other and Williams did an ole, letting Reeves pass. Bowles made them repeat the rep and Williams got some love from the crowd when he wrapped Reeves up and spun him to the ground. Poor Jacques drew Williams a couple more times in the drill. He got tagged, but Roy had some mercy on him these times.
In the next fifteen minutes the D-backs grouped with the linebackers to work on coverage schemes. An offensive group slipped colored balaclavas onto their helmets so the defensive players could recognize them. The defense practiced a few zone schemes but mostly worked on man coverage. Almost all of the drill was done in the nickel defense, who had to recognize and line up properly against a number of offensive groupings. Much of the drill involved coverage against bunch formations, which set three receivers tight to one side or another in a "bunch" which then scatters at the snap of the ball. Gary Gibbs had some plays re-run, since his linebackers flubbed some switches. The corners and safeties however, had no trouble recognizing and reacting to the ball. Many of the plays were run against to the offenses right, where Terrence Newman and Aaron Glenn had several breakups.
The first unit nickel, as it lined up yesterday, had Dat Nguyen and Scott Shanle as its linebackers, with Glenn playing left corner and Anthony Henry on the right. Newman played the slot receiver. Roy Williams lined up as a safety behind Newman, and Keith Davis would slide to the side opposite the slot-WR. When the nickel faced a four wideout look, Williams would come up to the line and take the second inside man, with Davis playing in the deep middle.
After the nickel drill, the offense and defense matched up in units. The group nearest me had the linebackers and safeties square off against the tight ends and running backs in a blitz drill. The coached set up blocking pads and inverted trash cans to demark the positions of the center and the tackles. A cone was placed seven yards behind the center, to note where the QB would be on a seven step drop. A back or tight end would line up in the backfield and attempt to protect the cone against a blitzing defender. The drill offered up lots of information.
First, it appears that Parcells was probably right when he said the team might not carry a true fullback. Erik Bickerstaff was in uniform, but did not participate in this drill, probably to protect his strained neck. However, almost all the reps had tight ends Dan Campbell, Jason Witten and Brett Pierce lining up in the fullback spots. Next, it appears that Witten has worked extensively on his blocking. He was the most effective of the three tight ends in the drill, not allowing his man to reach the cone.
The backs were a mixed back of results. Julius Jones won't make anybody forget Emmitt Smith's blocking (Emmitt was the best pass blocking RB I have ever seen),but he's okay. Marion Barber looks like a rookie, solid one play and confused the next. The real surprise was Anthony Thomas, who is flat out lousy as a pass blocker. He will probably make the team as the change-up back, because next to Jones he is the most assured runner in camp. But don't expect to see him in the game as a third down back, because he'll get his QB killed. Thomas was consistently overrun during the drill, and seemed to want no part of mixing it up.
Roy Williams was a star of the drill, regularly blowing past backs and once finishing his rep by scooping up the cone, to indicate a sack. The crowd edged forwards every time he got a turn. When he hits somebody it just sounds different. There were some pleasant surprises from the rookies. Kevin Burnett has some blitz potential. He probably won't do it that often, but he showed that he could beat his man when called upon.
The guy who had everybody shaking their heads in admiration was Demarcus Ware. The man has skills. He got three turns in the drill and produced three memorable results. On his first play he lined up at right OLB opposite Brett Pierce. He made contact and shed Pierce with a silky smooth -- and fast -- spin move that landed him at the cone. His next rep put him at left OLB and this time he simply blew past Keylon Kincade untouched to the cone. After showing off his quickness, Ware surprised Dan Campbell with his power. Back at ROLB, Ware juked Campbell to the outside, then surprised the TE by blasting right into him. Ware got under Campbell's pads, drove him backwards and deposited him on the cone. Campbell, as you might expect, was not pleased at getting embarrassed. If Ware can make a guy like Campbell look bad, I imagine there are not many TE or FBs out there who can take him one-on-one.
On the far field, the WRs and DBs were running seven on seven drills. Much of the action was obscured, but Reggie Harrell made a spectacular play that took everyone's attention off the blitz drill for a moment. Harrell was running a go route against Bruce Thornton when he stopped, leaped and made a one handed stab of an underthrown Tony Romo pass. This alone won't get him on the team, but if Harrell can do something like this in the exhibition games, he's got a shot.
The practice ended with situational 11-on-11 drills. The first half of the drill put the ball on the offense's own 40 and had them try deep and intermediate routes down the field. After each offensive unit got a couple of reps at this the ball as placed at the 20 and the team worked on red zone passing. The offense is clearly still behind the defense. All units, whether they were led by Bledsoe, Romo or Henson were erratic. The offense could not string three good plays together. They would have two good passes, and follow them up with two bad one. Bledsoe, for instance, opened the drill with a short completion to Glenn and a nice completion on a deep in to Campbell. The next two plays produced a false start and a center snap from Al Johnson that sailed over Bledsoe's head. I don't know how much of the sputtering is due to the defense and how much is due to the lack of a mesh on the offensive side of the ball.
What is clear is that all the QBs already trust Jason Witten with their football lives. Bledsoe knows where to find him and how to get him the ball. Romo does too. He caught TDs from both of them in the red zone drill. If you're looking for an indespensible player on offense, I'd put Witten ahead of Julius Jones. Dallas has depth at RB and could go forward if Jones were hurt. If Witten went down, however, I think he'd take the entire passing game with him.
Copyright 2005 by Rafael Vela