Put the rosaries away. Snuff out the candles. Stick a pin in the voodoo doll of your nervous buddy who lost his mind because Roy Williams started camp '09 slowly.
I've watched two sessions thus far and I see nothing wrong the man. He built on a strong morning session with a dominant afternoon performance, in which he beat all comers in drills and in scrimmages. His was part of an evolving team that shows much better depth, athleticism and execution than last year's model. It does have its warts, but the good signs far outpace the bad ones at this point in time.
Back to the Return
Dallas began the afternoon in full pads and resumed work on an aspect of special teams play drilled in the morning session. The team again broke up into two groups, with John Garrett schooling the front line blockers and Joe DeCamillis taking the wedge men and the return men. The groups were integrated and the team fielded at least a dozen kickoffs, trying returns to both sidelines. Some notes from this drill
-- Felix Jones and Miles Austin handled the returns exclusively;
-- Pat McQuistan and Cory Proctor were the starters on the wedge. It's early, but I would not be surprised to see them keep these roles;
-- The new formation makes it much harder to pre-call a return. When kicks went towards the left sideline, the ball was returned that way. I think the smaller wedges will make it easier for the coverage teams to dictate the direction of the returns.
They're All Defensive Backs
I've noticed one important change in the secondary drills from last year. In Oxnard, the corners and safeties did a lot of sub-group work; the corners would work on backpedaling, cutting and reacting with Dave Campo. The safeties worked on positioning relative to the line of scrimmage, getting proper depth in zone coverage, reading run versus pass.
Not so this year. The secondary drills all integrate both corners and safeties and they work extensively, all of them, on reacting, cutting and meeting the ball at the receiver. It's also clear from the drills that the newbies at safety -- Sensabaugh, Ball and to a lesser extent, Brown -- can all run with their corner cousins. You don't see a dropoff in backpedal agility, cutting or acceleration from the safeties compared to the corners. I would say that Sensabaugh is one of the fastest DBs at accelerating forward out of a cut.
The safeties also have to take their turns in the one-on-one coverage drills against the top receivers. They're all d-backs now. The safeties don't get the luxury of squaring off against tight ends. Today, I saw Sensabaugh take several reps against Williams. Roy beat him (he beat everybody today) but Sensabaught wasn't a pushover. He was always within arms reach of the ball. Dallas would not have tried this were Roy L. Williams still the starter.
The benefits of throwing all the d-backs into the coverage deep end could be seen in the final drill of the day, where the offense started at its own 30 and ran a two minute, no huddle drill (picking up work on the packages that were installed this morning).
Romo had two drives, Kitna had two drives and Stephen McGee had one. All moved from the offenses end to about the defense's 20 or 25 every time. Here, defending a short field, the defense stopped the offense -- every single time. The passing windows shrank. The recovery speed was evident. Looking for a big potential positive for the '09 defense, here it is. All of them, the corners and the safeties, can cover.
Strange Fruit from the Passing Tree
Offensively, I see a lot more repetitions dedicated to running precise and varied patterns. This morning the receivers ran a lot of tight five yard outs and comebacks. They also ran a lot of hitches, suggesting that Dallas will run a lot of receiver screens or bubble screens this year.
This afternoon, the combination routes were run in bulk. One receiver would pretend to be a defender and play bracket coverage underneath and the receiver had to shake him with a hard in route and out. The wideout would make a sharp inwards cut, take two steps and then curl back to the sideline. This route was integrated into the later 1-on-1, 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. In addition, I saw post corners, post-corner-posts and out and ups.
Nobody ran them better than Roy Williams, who showed he could cut at full speed and get consistent separation. This isn't the plantar-fasciitis Roy. This guy caught deep ins, deep outs, double moves, fades, gos. He ran the whole repertoire and made catches morning and afternoon. Don't worry. Roy E. can play.
The Cowboys offensive install featured a blizzard of reverses, screens and doo-dads. All were incorporated into the 11-on-11s, with varying success. (I think familiarity between the offense and defense might have sabotaged one or two.) I'm not going to spill state secrets, but I will tell you there was enough misdirection to make Tom Landry proud.
One area of play that continues to receive attention, with positive results, is the screen game. I've written before that Jason Garrett made the Cowboys a very effective screen team last year. Today, I saw more evidence that the team will be that much better at running them this campaign. Tony Romo made two accurate, nearly blind screens to Tashard Choice and Felix Jones to beat full blitzes. What was most impressive was the speed at which the offense executed these plays. Romo was fully shielded by blitzers on one but hit Choice at full stride but throwing to the spot where Choice was supposed to be. Were this a real game, Choice would have gained big yards.
Spy vs. Spy
Last week I wrote that it's hard to tell when you have Cowboys playing Cowboys if a player is good or his competition is bad. Case in point. Today, the offensive line practiced a lot of blocking on stretch plays, counters and draws. Late in practice, the team went 9-on-9, a drill without corners or receivers. It's a softer version of a nutcracker, in that everybody knows the offense will only run the ball.
The offense was very effective, with the first and the second units, at running the ball inside. Marion Barber in particular had several long romps.
Was this a sign of better interior blocking? Or, are we seeing signs that Dallas needs another nose tackle? Probably both. The offensive line has been reeling in the defense, after some tough early days. However, I have yet to see a notable play from either of Jay Ratliff's understudies. I think this defense has a chance to be much, much better than last year's because the secondary looks deeper and strong, and because Keith Brooking looks like an upgrade over Zach Thomas. It won't get there, in my opinion, unless the team invests in another big body to help out Tarzan Jay.
-- Learning from Tony: Jon Kitna seems to have picked up some of Tony Romo's escape moves. He beat a blitz in the final two minute drill with a side-arm flip to Barber.
-- Flozell Adams looks far more svelte to my eyes. He's clearly lost some weight, but I want to know how much?
-- I've only seen a couple of practices, but I see a much better, more fluid Doug Free at backup left tackle. I'll keep an eye on him.