Notes from the morning practice in the Alamodome:
The Cowboys are Being DeCamillisized
Weeks ago, news broke that the NFL competition committee had changed a rule on kickoffs outlawing four-man wedges, now limiting return units to two-man wedges. This morning's practice gave a solid look at what the new return landscape looks like.
The '09 DeCamillis special teams units drill the same way the DeHaven and the Read units did, and I imagine in the same way all NFL teams do, using what I'll call a "building block" approach. Each specific task is broken down into small units, which have a position coach drilling a small sub-unit of the bigger eleven man grouping.
Dallas opened practice by splitting the kickoff return units into three sub-groups. On the left field, John Garrett and another position coach drilled the up men in the craft of looping back, picking out an oncoming opponent, getting into a proper stance, hitting on the inside shoulder, depending on which side of the field he's playing and sustaining the block for as long as possible.
On the opposite half, DeCamillis worked with the two-man wedges and the return men. He began with an important, but novel mini-drill: he had his big linemen (all the wedge guys are backup O-linemen) fielding kickoffs, in the event a mis-hit or an intentional pop kick is aimed at them. The big guys all had trouble fielding the balls on the fly, but all managed to get the ball under control quickly, wrap it up with two hands and lumber as far upfield as possible until contact.
The units were then integrated into a single unit, and showed that kickoff return packages will look different this year, due to the rule change. In the past, teams would field a five-man first line, just around mid-field, a four-man wedge at around the 25 to 20 and two deep return men. One of the deep men would field the ball and the other would run forward, join hands with the wedge and form a five-man blocking line.
Today, Dallas fielded a staggered six-man line near midfield, with two men in the center and the two widest players just in front of the 40. The two players one man from the end were set about four to five yards behind them. At the 30, the two wedge-men were stationed between the hash marks. At the fifteen, two wide returners were set and a single return man was on the goal line. The package looks like this:
o o o o
o wedge o
On kickoffs that go deep to the returner, the two wedge men race back from their 30 to the about the 15 to form the mini-wedge. The two deep men on the edges run forward and fill in with the six up men.
The concept is to form an eight-man arc as high up the field as possible, with the returner and the wedge running into space in the middle, the left or the right, depending on what return is called.
There were some leaks on the edges of the protection, but when the concept worked, the kickoff coverage teams were locked up around the 30 and the returners had a lot of room to maneuver behind them.
Day Eight Install
The offense takes the same building blocks approach. A package is worked out by the offensive skill position people against no opposition in an initial drill. The idea is to get timing, spacing and coordination down. Later, the package is practiced in a 7-on-7 drill against the defensive back seven and later again in an 11-on-11 drill where the linemen participate.
Today, Jason Garrett's guys worked on no-huddle sets, starting in the pre-red zone area of the opposition's 40 and from the offense's own 30. The base set for all the drills was a one-back, three-wideout package. The groups were as follows:
One: Romo, Barber, Witten, Williams, Crayton, Austin
Two: Kitna, Jones, Bennett, Hawkins, Hurd, Jefferson
The groups were fairly smooth in the initial drill, with Romo's group looking the sharpest by far. This carried over into the seven-on-seven, where Romo started to seek out Roy Williams, with some sarcastic cheering coming from the fans.
Understand that the sets are mix and match. The first offense paired up against the second team back seven and so on. The disparity in efficiency became more pronounced in the second drills, when defenders were contesting the plays. That said, the first unit breezed down the field with ease. Romo missed Williams on a deep in that sailed over Roy's head, but that was the only hiccup. Romo is his old self, nailing everything in the short and intermediate zones. His reads are quick and his passes were accurate, which was important because the second unit did not give his receivers large throwing windows.
Romo has obvious trust in Miles Austin, who appears to have improved his route running, a key addition for a guy who got over his dropsies last year. Austin made a catch on the right sideline of a Romo rope to open the second drill and ended the TD drive by snagging a fade in the left back corner over Mike Mickens.
Dallas then split the field, with the three skill sets groups rotating in against rotating back sevens. On the other side of the field, the offensive and defensive linemen were going one-on-one in a pass blocking/pass rushing drill. The full o-line would deploy and the three d-linemen and the two OLBs would also deploy but only one rusher would come on any snap and would take one one of the linemen. The drill tested one-on-one skills, as there was no slanting or looping involved.
I'm not going to make any blanket proclamations about this guy, or that guy, because each player got maybe three reps at the most. I will say that everybody should watch 4th rounder Victor Butler when Dallas plays the Raiders a week from tomorrow. He's the rookie rusher fastest out of the blocks. He impressed in a one-on-one drill the OLBs and TEs had on the far field. He has quick hands and can get himself off of blocks. In this five-on-five rush drill, Butler showed a burst off both edges. He showed some skill at knocking down an OTs punchout, getting low and turning the corner hard. Doug Free and Leonard Davis both were able to ride him wide of the QB's spot, but they were clearly troubled by his quickness.
I have no reference point for past drills, but overall the starting o-linemen did well in this drill. The defense may have had an early lead in camp but to my one-practice old eyes, the offense appears caught up. The defense did a lot of blitzing in the 11-on-1 and Romo was able to get the ball away in the nick of time, even when a rusher broke free. He made a hot read to a Felix Jones flare to beat a backside blitz on the first of two 11-on-11 drives that finished in the end zone. Jones in space, catching the ball in stride is a scary thing.
Funky Play of the Day
Garrett had a couple of sets that utilized Barber and Felix, with Felix flexing into different positions. Midway through the seven-on-seven, Dallas deployed all three backs on the field, with Choice and Barber playing fullback and halfback respectively in a pro-set. Felix motioned from the flanker position into the backfield behind Choice, presenting a power-I look before the snap. The backs scattered as Romo ran a play-action throw behind the linebackers.
Players of Note
Sam, Sam, the Velcro Man -- Sam Hurd has the 4th spot locked up, health permitting. He's catching everything, regardless of where it comes. He had two diving snags over the middle today.
Keith Brooking -- they were not in full pads today, but Brooking showed much better coverage skills than Zach Thomas, tracking Martellus Bennett up the seam and into the left flat. Covering Aquaman ain't easy.
Bobby Carpenter -- ditto for this guy. I can only comment on his coverage skills and I don't see any notable dropoff from Kevin Burnett, at least in practice.
Stephen McGee -- no QB controversy with this guy. He's a raw rookie and he looks it. He's confused in his reads, he's slow to throw the ball downfield and quick to dump it off or throw it away.
Jason Witten -- so smooth you don't notice him. He plays like he's in a rocking chair with a big glass of tea, showing no exertion. Romo's one bad pass of the 11-on-11 ended as a completion because Witten reached behind his head to snag it.
Mike Mickens -- plays to his profile, at least today, anyway. Very aggressive at the line, with a good two-hand jam. He needs to be consistent with it, because you can get behind him if he misses. He whiffed on one play and Roy Williams torched him on a go route. When Mickens timed it right a few plays later he knocked Williams helmet off. (Roy plays with his chin strap off, which is the likely cause of all these loud "big" hits the last couple of day.)
Courtney Brown -- He's showing range inside and out, and recovered to bat away a fade to Williams in the final drill.
Your SIgh Moment of the Day
Martellus Bennett got up very slowly holding his left hand after taking a shot from Terence Newman. The team trainer examined the hand and Bennett appears to be okay.
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