The full pads came out again today as the Cowboys put in their most physical and most comprehensive practice of the week. Some items were added to the team's repertoire, namely punt coverage and returns, but the coaches took advantage of the referees crew to work their offense and defensive units in three long 11-on-11 drills that incorporated all the offensive and defensive packages installed thus far. Think of it as the team's mid-term exam.
From Kickoffs to Punts
After at least three consecutive sessions devoted to kickoff returns, the team moved on to punt coverage and returns today. As is the norm, the coaches broke up each act into small subgroups. A coach would work with gunners and on the the edge blockers who are supposed to block opposing gunners. Other coaches would drill the interior blockers on the process of blocking until the punt is away, getting a clean release and running upfield.
DeCamillis focused on the punt returners and the tactics of blocking near the received ball. It's clear watching the new ST coach's drills that he has a more abstract view of special teams than the last two coaches. He has several options for every situation. The drills map out the space on the field precisely and blockers and returners have to hit precise spots. It's looks very much like the Norv Turner/Mike Martz timing concept of passing the ball, only applied to kickoff and punt returns. I'm eager to see how these drills work in real game situations.
The team did not integrate the fragmented pieces into an integrated 11-on-11 punt drill today, so I expect to see that in at least one of tomorrow's two practices.
After the special teams drills, the offense skill position players and the defensive back seven worked independently on personnel packages. The emphasis was on lining up properly and executing the passes at speed. There was no opposition, so it became clear after a few minutes that the team was being asked to run as much of the offense as Jason Garrett had thus far installed, and for the defenders to work on as many of the coverage packages as Wade Phillips had put in.
Full Pads, Full Bore
After fifteen minutes, the ball was placed on the defense's for and the first 11-on-11 drill began. This worked more on the heavy two-TE, two-back sets the team installed yesterday. The linemen hit each other but the linebackers and secondary players were prohibited from wrapping and dropping ball carriers to the ground, to minimize the risk or injuries.
The ball was then moved to the goalline and the starters got some reps with full tackling. Tony Romo got a quick TD pass to Martellus Bennett, who outraced Keith Brooking to the left pylon, but the defense responded with three consecutive stops of runs. Demarcus Ware continuesd his strong camp by spilling a Marion Barber run coming directly at him. The second and third units then began to rotate in, so play-by-plays are pointless. The sum total was a split decision -- the offense won their share and the defense theirs.
After a brief break the ball was moved to the offense's 40 and the first offense began running many of the plays it had worked out earlier in the practice against the first defense. Many of the plays were run from two TE, one-back sets, base two back sets and a one-back, three-WR set, with lots of variations within each personnel grouping. Many of the plays ran off three step drops, anticipating heavy blitzing.
Wade Phillips, as he has all camp, unleashed the expected heavy pressure at the offense once the full drills began. On every play, the offense saw at least five rushers, though six and sometimes seven men would blitz. Corners were sent, safeties came off the edge, inside linebackers would twist.
The good news from the defense's perspective is that the linebackers and safeties made a habit of getting into the quarterback's face.
The good news from the offense's perspective is that the line looked solid at handling thhe stunting and twists. Overloads got through but I didn't see starting linemen getting fooled or overpowered.
Most impressively, Tony Romo continued his blitz-beating play. He was 8-10 in the first session. One incompletion sailed over a confused Jason Witten's head and the second high throw was batted incomplete by Martellus Bennett. Romo moved the ball to a variety of targets. Roy Williams caught a quick slant to beat one blitz. Sam Hurd caught a second slant to beat another. Jason Witten caught a ball, as did Martellus Bennett. Several backs caught completions off delays out the backfield.
Back when Bill Parcells took over years ago, he used to school his offense on handling bltizes, telling them, "by the end of the year, you'll want them to blitz you." Garrett is working the offense to that point. They've been facing heavy-duty rushes since the mini-camps in May and it appears they're becoming far more accustomed to the pressure.
Marion Barber showed the group's quick-hitting potential when Romo hit him with a quick flare on the first play of the final 11-on-11. The defense had run an all-out safety and linebacker blitz and Barber chugged untouched up the middle of the field, an appreciative crowd cheering him on.
Roy Williams would have ended the day in rousing fashion had he caught a perfectly thrown Romo go route. Williams had burned Orlando Scandrick on one of the few seven-step drops of the day, but saw the pass bounce off his hands. It was one of the few mistakes the offense made today.
I'm not much for handing out grades, especially since the first preseason game is still six days away. I will give the offense a satisfactory for the afternoon. A strong satisfactory.
-- Isaiah Stanback returned today. He took his turns as a punt returner and as the flanker with the second unit. His burst was evident, though he looked a bit sluggish very late in the session after lots of full speed reps.
A lot of people want to discard him, but if you're concerned about the team's wide receiver depth, you should be rooting for him to get on a healthy streak. He's clearly more athletic than Mike Jefferson and Kevin Ogletree, the two guys fighting him for the 5th spot. He's also in his third camp, so his learning curve is far flatter than theirs. Miles Austin and Sam Hurd have had some trouble staying on the field the past few years themselves, so it would suit the team to have a 5th option who could actually run the offense if required.
-- Alan Ball continues to make plays. He's not the second coming of Jim Thorpe, but it seems that once to twice a practice you see him get his hands on the football.
-- Bobby and the Rookies: were it the '50s, we would call it a doo-wop band. In the late drills, Bobby Carpenter headed a linebacking group that had Jason Williams at the other ILB spot and fellow rookies Brandon Williams and Victor Butler at the OLB spots.
-- A Jason Williams sighting. Dallas ran a 3-5 scheme when it faced the heavy two-TE, two-RB offensive set. Dallas had its five man line with three down linemen and two OLBs , but three ILBs behind them instead of two. Carpenter and Jason Williams were the weakside ILBs and both broke up a lot of running and passing plays.
-- A note on aggression. Want some press defense? You're gonna get it. I rarely saw a safety lining up more than ten yards off the line of scrimmage. When Dallas had a lone centerfielder, he would drop 12-15 yards deep just before the snap but the safeties were at most ten yards off the ball most of the time. The corners, were much closer to the line of scrimmage.
-- Tashard Choice was back today and showed no ill effects from his shoulder injury.
-- The refs make a difference, or do they? Yesterday, I said the refs would tell us how the team was doing execution wise, especially on in the secondary. After 60-70 offense plays today, I would give the team a good but not great report. The referees threw four flags, one on Orlando Scandrick for pass interference, two procedure penalties, one on Flozell Adams and the other on Marc Colombo and a fourth procedure call on one of the backup o-linemen. Fairly clean for this time of the year, especially compared to last year's camp, but an area where more improvement can be made.
-- The kickie-up crew: The special teamers have been playing some of the other football in camp. Dallas has not run many live kicking drills, so L.P. Ladouceur, Nick Folk, Mat McBriar and David Buehler have had some time on their hands. In past practices, they've brought a soccer ball onto the field and had extended sessions of kicking and heading the ball to each other, sometimes going minutes without seeing the ball touch the ground.
Today, Folk was recruited by Joe DeCamillis to use the round ball in a punt coverage drill. McBriar would punt the ball to a deep returner, who would seek out an up-man to block for him. Folk would roll the soccer ball into the returners path and his job was to side-step the ball while maintaining his gaze upfield and following his blocks.
-- You likely list of punt returners: Felix Jones, Patrick Crayton, Terence Newman and Isaiah Stanback all took reps today.
-- Attention to detail: at one point in the punt return and coverage drills, John Garrett, Dat Nguyen, Dave Campo, Reggie Herring, Brett Maxie and Joe DeCamillis were drilling sub-groups. That's six coaches folks.