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Cowboys Camp Day 1: You Begin at the Beginning

The Cowboys concluded a spirited 90 minute workout this afternoon in shorts and shirts, which aimed to knock out summer-time rust and re-introduce the players to football at full speed. 

The coaches worked on the most elemental of elements.  From a schematic standpoint, Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips took their units to the basics;  the offense worked exclusively in its 21 (two backs and one tight) and 12 sets (one back, two tight ends) with the F-back flexing into the backfield, giving a 21 look.  On defense, the Cowboys worked in the base 3-4, with four linebackers at all times.  No nickel backs and no nickel linebackers took the field today. 

When the teams did scrimmage, the defense, as it common in early camp sessions, took a lead.  None of the Cowboys quarterbacks had large throwing windows and back seven players on the first, second and third units got their hands on several football and made a handful of interceptions.

After the usual pre-workout stretching the team broke into offensive and defensive halves.    After working on walking through the base plays and sets to be handled this day, the team then broke down by unit and fine tuned their workouts. 

The running backs started their day in pairs, with one player holding a ball in an arm which had a long rubber band attached.  A second back would hold the other end of the band and yanked it periodically, trying to simulate a defender ripping at the football.  Later, the backs worked on blitz pickup, but again, concentrated more on technique than on recognizing exotic blitzes.  The backs worked on coming forward towards the blitzer, rather than sitting and waiting for the pressure to come.  Backs coach Skip Peete worked on proper pocket placement, having his men advance towards the edge rusher without overextending or overcommitting, which would give an inside lane towards the quarterback.

The receivers worked on  their releases off the line of scrimmage -- repeatedly.  Then, they ran through a three cone slalom maze with cuts at ten yard intervals.  The backs would run diagonally as if running a slant, then cut outside towards the sideline, then cut back inside before catching a pass.  Ray Sherman worked his men on maintaining speed through the cuts. 

The quarterbacks and running backs then grouped together and worked on executing handoffs properly, getting proper placement and proper foot-work in the backfield.  The usual runs were practiced -- dives, off-tackle runs, and many reps working on the delayed action of the lead draw.

In the far corner, Hudson Houck schooled his guys on the most elemental of items.  He put them in lines, then worked for several minutes on proper line spacing, and proper depth for each lineman relative to the center.  Next, the linemen got into a large box which had a roped border about five feet off the ground.   Houck had the tackles, guards and then centers work on pulling laterally without hitting the ropes, then had them fire out forward without any contact.  The lesson was to keep pad level low on every snap. 

Later, Houck worked on their first steps out of stance on runs and on pass drops.  He schooled them on their lateral movement and on maintaining the pocket by moving laterally together.  The drills got a bit more heated when Houck broke his line in half, with the centers and guards working on double team blocks on interior linemen, with the two OL firing into the opponent and either the center or guard scraping off to seek out a linebacker, depending on which run play was being practiced. 

Further down the field, John Garrett was running the same drill with the offensive tackles and the tight end, working on double-teaming defensive ends and then breaking the TE off to block the outside linebacker.

On the opposite end of the field, the linebackers worked on their pass drops, and on tracking the quarterback left or right.   They then drilled on taking the proper first step on each play.  The linebackers then worked on proper hand usage when engaging a blocker, getting proper positioning and quickly disengaging from the opponent.

The defensive linemen first worked on getting and maintaining proper gap control, using their hands to keep from being hooked away from runs in their direction.  In a mirror of the offensive linemens' double-team drill, the D-linemen worked on absorbing and resisting double-team blocks. 

The units then slowly re-integrated, with offense and defense working a six-on-seven passing drill, with the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and receivers challenging the linebackers and d-backs.  Though the quarterbacks were off limits, the linebackers did a lot of rushing.  This represents a carry over from last year.  Wade Phillips wants his defense to attack and he wants them to work on it all the time.  At the same time, he wants the offense to become comfortable working against steady pressure. 

Being the first day at full speed, or near full speed in weeks, the results were mixed.  Tony Romo did squeeze an early pass to Jason Witten, between diving inside backers Keith Brooking and Bradie James.  On this afternoon, however, the defense was well ahead.  Neither Romo, nor Jon Kitna, nor Stephen McGee had wide open targets to throw to.  The windows were tight and they closed quickly.  Sometimes too quickly for the throwers.  Anthony Spencer and Victor Butler each intercepted passes to the left flat.  Backup Curtis Johnson came close to another. 

The short and deep middle was closed for the most part.  James and Brooking each broke up a pass.  At a deeper level, Alan Ball closed down quickly to deny a crossing route; Pat Watkins raced to the deep right to knock down a deep out pass and Michael Hamlin rotated quickly to the left sideline to bat down a deep fade. 

The units then integrated fully, with the o-linemen joining the skill position players and the defensive linemen fronting the back seven.  The results were a slurry of good plays for the offense and for the defense, with the edge leading towards the defense.

Individual results are meaningless today because the players lacked pads.  The linemen were not hitting each other and no tackling was allowed.  We should get a much better idea in the next couple of days, as the pads are sure to emerge.

Notes:  We saw a lot of the oldies-and-goodies today.  The quick slant;  the lead draw; the flanker screen; the fullback screen; the flanker reverse; lots of go routes.  The offense was Pro Bowl vanilla and without this element of surprise, the defense could run.

And the defense can run.  I was impressed with the obvious speed of the linebacking corps.  All these guys can run.  Reggie Herring appears to have worked hard with his outside backers on proper drops, angles and recognition, because they closed like missiles on backs and tight ends.  The starters and the backups were always near the football.

The defense played almost exclusively in man today and flopped with H-backs to keep Anthony Spencer on the strong side and Demarcus Ware on the weakside.

Yeah, he's good.  Dez Bryant is smooth, fast and has velcro hands.  He made a diving catch of a deep out with one hand and dragged his feet just inside the right sideline.  He's going to give his QBs a giant comfort zone;  if you throw it in his vicinity, odds are very good that he'll catch it.

Early O-line rotations, LT to RT:

  • 1st unit:  Free-Kosier-Gurode-Davis-Colombo
  • 2nd unit:  Barron-Holland-Bright-McQuistan-Brewster;
  • 3rd unit: Barker-Tepper-Costa-McQuistan-Young

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