What began as a slow paced practice that emphasized the smallest details of the game evolved into the most aggressive practice of the week and offers the promise that this weekends stumbling performance in Arizona will be soon forgotten.
The light finally appeared to come on for the offense, which has been at the mercy of the defense thus far. The coaching staff challenged the players individually and as units and they performed today. The capper of the day was a successful series of two minute drills in which all three units moved successfully into scoring range.
Intensity was the last word you would use to describe the first half hour today. The team seemed almost too relaxed. After stretching the team gathered at the near field to work on punt coverage. But the drill looked nothing like a punt. The ball was snapped to Matt McBriar, who would feign kicking the ball. And then, the linemen would take turn covering the fake kick; they would walk five yards up the field and stop. Coach Bruce DeHaven's interest was in spacing them correctly.
After the team broke into units, the sleepy pace continued. Todd Bowles had his defensive backs standing opposite one another in a line, not moving. It took a few minutes for me to figure out what he was doing. This was a drill to teach proper spacing against receivers who go in motion. One of the "offensive" players would move laterally -- at half speed -- and his assigned defender would trail him. Bowles would stop them in half motion, so to speak and show the DB or S why he should not trail too far behind or crowd the man too closely. After a few series of this, he would drill them on switching on men in motion when the defense is in zone.
Farther up the field the inside linebackers were passing through repetition after repetition to see if they could read whether a QB was actually handing off to a back to keeping the ball to run a bootleg pass. One of the assistants would fake the handoff and other times actually hand it off. The backers had to yell the proper call to each other and respond quickly.
On the opposite field, the QBs and backs were working on confusing their opponents as much as possible. In one of those strange mirror drills, the three QBs would line up on the same yard line some fifteen yards apart. Each had a coach to snap the ball to them, a back behind them, a tight end and a receiver. Drew Bledsoe would call the signals and on the proper count the ball was snapped to all three QBs simultaneously. Each would drop back and either hand off, fake the handoff and then either drop back or rollout. The drill emphasized proper footwork and ball placement to sell the fake. But seeing all three units do it at the same time made that part of the field represent a ballroom dancing class more than a football practice.
The sum of these drills was a drowsy, sometimes silly looking early practice. But the need for them should be clear. These are the little details that can make or break a team's execution. Good teams do them by rote. Bad teams merely talk about them. The Cowboys have been a bad team. They are coming off a bad game. These are the intricate details they must master if they want to get better.
After this set of drills, the team repeated many of the technique drills I reported on Monday morning. After that, the offense and defense met by position to challenge each other. It was here the the more intense tone of today's practice became more apparent. The receivers squared off against the corners, but unlike yesterday, where it was unit against unit today it was one on one. Drew Bledsoe would take the snap and look to his right. Terry Glenn would be there, lined up against Terrence Newman. Nobody else. The sequence of duels could best be described a draw. The offense won some. The defense won some.
On the far field the offensive and defensive linemen were squaring off. Only here they were doing so in groups of three. OL coach Tony Sparano began the drill by having two guards and a center square off against a nose tackle and two inside linebackers. Later, he would have one side of his line, a tackle, guard and center match a defense end and an inside and outside linebacker. The defense won a few, with Greg Ellis getting the better of Flozell Adams on one occasion. However, the majority of the duels went to the offense. Andre Gurode showed some temper by planting nose tackles at least twice.
The hit of the drill was turned in by Larry Allen, who ate his Wheaties today. Allen caught an unsuspecting Ryan Fowler, who had another good practice himself, and literally threw him five yards backwards. This was the type of hit Allen made frequently in his prime and it brought oohs and ahs from his teammates. Poor Fowler had to take a long slow walk behind his group in order to gather his senses. He's the biggest ILB the Cowboys have and Allen had thrown him like a medicine ball.
The team reassembled for some field goal drills and punt coverage drills. DeHaven first slowed practice down again in order to drill his edge men on working in tandem to jam the other team's gunners. The linebackers also worked on running downfield, turning quickly, finding their man and blocking him. The quick pace then resumed when the first team coverage unit took on the first team punt returners. The top set right now shows how important this unit will be this year. Anthony Henry and Ike Reese were one set of wide men, while Aaron Glenn and Jacques Reeves worked on the other side. Terrence Newman lined up deep as the return man. That's your top three cornerbacks, the top young reserve CB in Reeves and the free safety with the most special teams experience. After six returns, DeHaven appeared satisfied with the improvement in blocking and moved on.
Dallas then jumped into the first set of 11-on-11 drills. All running plays. The defense won a handful of battles but roughly two thirds of the plays went to the offense, who showed surprising strength on the right side, where Tyson Walter manned the RG and Rob Petitti the RT slot.
The team then broke again into two groups, with the skill position players running seven on seven drills against the defense and the linemen again squaring off in sub units. This time, they ran two on three drills, with two d-linemen running stunts against one side of an offensive line. Gurode again made some impressive hits. Parcells wandered over to this drill and worked with the defenders. If Parcells words carry any weight it was a good drill for Chris Canty and Thomas Johnson, who made strong penetration on their stunts and would have reached a real QB.
The team then returned to a second 11-on-11, which was again notable for the offense's dominance. The crispness that was missing on Monday seemed to flourish overnight. Bledsoe finally began to string sequence of plays together. Big plays emerged. Tyson Thompson took a delay up the middle for an enormous gain; Bledsoe hit Anthony Thomas on a deep swing route behind Demarcus Ware for another huge play. Bledsoe just missed capping his set with a bomb to Terry Glenn, who had burned Aaron Glenn badly.
After a brief water break, Parcells summoned the team to the middle of the field to set up the final drill of the day. Each offensive unit would run a two minute offense against their defensive counterpart. Parcells would keep time. The offense would get one time out.
Each unit started at mid field. Bledsoe led an offense that featured Julius Jones at RB, Jason Witten at TE and Terry Glenn, Keyshawn Johnson and Patrick Crayton as WRs on the field. Bledsoe started their drive with a seven yard shallow cross to Keyshawn Johnson. The play was whistled dead on contact, with tackling not allowed. On the next play, Roy Williams joined a four man rush line of Greg Ellis, LaRoi Glover, Chris Canty and Demarcus Ware on a safety blitz. Witten picked up Williams, which allowed Bledsoe time to step up in the pocket and find Glenn sliding across the middle for 17 yards.
As the team ran to the line to continue the sequence with no huddle, Rob Petitti turned to Witten to discuss his assignment, which he had apparently blown. This slowed the offense and drew a delay of game penalty from Parcells. With the ball back on the 32, Bledsoe ran a rollout right and hit Glenn for seven on the far sideline. The play was the perfect antidote for a second safely blitz up the middle by Williams. The team huddled as Glenn stopped the clock. On the next play the defense sent Anthony Henry on a corner blitz from Bledsoe's left side. He again adjusted, hitting Witten over the middle on a hot read for nine more yards. The offense ran into position, set and Bledsoe spiked the ball. Parcells motioned the first offense to the sideline and congratulated them on moving into medium field goal range.
Tony Romo brought Anthony Thomas, Dan Campbell, Quincy Morgan, Jamaica Rector and Zuriel Smith with him. Their drive did not begin as effectively, as a draw to Thomas was stopped for only two yards. Romo then beat his first blitz, finding Rector over the middle for sixteen yards. The offense ran to the line and Romo spiked the ball for an apparent successful first sequence. However, Parcells penalized them because only six men lined up on the line of scrimmage. After an incompletion, Romo beat another corner blitz by tossing a soft ball up the left seam for Thomas, who released upfield upon seeing the blitz. Thomas ran under the ball two yards behind Eric Ogbogu, who dropped into coverage on the zone blitz. The ball was whistled dead around the ten, though Thomas likely would have scored were full contact allowed. Parcells motioned the second unit off the field and brought on the third team.
Drew Henson moved his team to a quick first down with a 12 yard strike to Brett Pierce. After an incompletion and a sack for no gain, Henson ended the day, and earned a smile from his head coach by lofting a rainbow into the left corner of the end zone, where Reggie Harrell snagged it.
All three offensive units had faced intense pressure from the defense. This was a fully open drill, where nothing was telegraphed. There were two minor penalties, but the offense had responded to the challenges, as they had all day. There were no blocking breakdowns. The QBs and the receivers adjusted properly to the blitzes they faced. The no huddle was in sync for all players, from the linemen to the skill people. The overall execution was dramatically better than the fumbling I saw Monday. If you really play the way you practice, the Cowboys should be dramatically better this coming week against the Seahawks.
Bring on Wednesday.
- After watching Tyson Thompson today, I think the question is no longer whether he can make the team but whether he can beat out Anthony Thomas for the backup spot. He got A LOT of reps with the second team, and in many packages was ahead of the A-Train.
- After some near misses on bombs this week, Drew Bledsoe and Terry Glenn stayed a few minutes after practice to work on their timing. Glenn is burning Terrence Newman and Aaron Glenn with regularity and could have a really big year if Bledsoe can dial him in.
- Marion Barber got some encouraging words from Bill Parcells after a strong run in the second 11-on-11 drill. Barber is pressing too hard. He makes good plays and then drops a pass. He is obviously wound tight right now and Parcells was probably hoping some positive reenforcement would calm him down.
- Deja vu. When I've looked at Chris Canty I've had the nagging feeling that I've seen him before. The high cut figure, with thick legs and a slender upper body. The long arms. The way he stands arms akimbo between plays. Parcells has compared him to Too Tall Jones, but it didn't fit. I thought maybe Leon Lett, but Leon was a thicker player than Canty, who looks skinny next to the other linemen. Today, it hit me -- Chris Canty is built like Bob Lilly. We can only hope he's half as good. Another familiar figure is Rob Petitti, who is built like Erik Williams. That he wears number 79 only heightens the illusion.
- The cyclone. The tornado. Get ready for it. Demarcus Ware has a devastating spin move that will demand a nickname. Yesterday he threw an outside spin at Brett Pierce. Today, he used an inside spin to waste Kurt Vollers in the three on two drill.
- I talked about the need to keep at least eight linebackers, to stock the special teams. Today, every linebacker on the team was involved in the special teams drills. So were all the corners and safeties.
- Anthony Henry has not been named the last two days because I've only seen one pass completed against him. And that was a comeback route by Keyshawn Johnson that Henry managed to graze.
Copyright 2005 by Rafael Vela