In a recent press conference, Jason Garrett candidly offered up a thesis about what the Cowboys didn't do well enough in 2011: the team was involved in too many close games (and lost too many of them); didn't play well at the end of games; and struggled in short yardage situations, and on the goal line. Garrett intimated that they were going to spend a lot of attention trying to correct theses problems in 2012. Today, we saw them work on precisely these things; as a result, this practice could have been titled "fixing stuff that done broke last year."
For this practice, the offense spent most of the afternoon on the near field, with the defense operating further away. Indeed, for one period, they ventured way beyond the far field, far beyond our eyesight, where a set of blocking sleds sat, in the distance, waiting to be abused. If this report appears a bit offense-heavy, it's for this simple reason: the "D" was often outta sight.
The other dominant theme was that Bill Callahan continues to coach his rear end off. Once again, he had his players working together before the official start to practice, working on proper pass sets. As I noted yesterday, Callahan is squeezing every last drop from the training camp orange to get as much work in as he can with what looks to be the 2012 season's make-or-break position group. Here, before the "blue period" commenced, he worked with backup tackles Jermey Parnell and Pat McQuistan on foot placement as they came out of their stances on pass protection. in particular, he wanted them to perfect their first step, encouraging them to shuffle and stay above their feet.
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As several members of the Dallas media informed us would happen, the Cowboys took a slightly different tack on the aforementioned blue period. Typically, the players immediately begin with special teams drills before gathering to stretch. Today, they started off with a group stretch, and then leaped immediately into kickoff drills. As per usual, coach Joe DeCamillis broke the operation into discrete, teachable units. First, he worked with the return team on positioning, then they sent guys down to cover the kick; using the placement they had just learned, the return team worked to pick up every potential tackler.
Next, he worked with the two-man "wedge," the players immediately in front of the returner (today, the first team wedge guys were Lawrence Vickers and Tyrone Crawford), showing them good technique for blocking while moving. After this, they sent two kick defenders down so that the pairs of up guys could practice the techniques they had just learned. Finally, they practiced the entire kick return - but not kick coverage: both Stephen McGee and Rudy Carpenter (as well as Cole Beasley) were serving as gunners, which I'm pretty confident they won't be doing in Oakland next Monday.
Next up was the 11-on-11 walk-through, during which we were treated to the return of Mackenzie Bernadeau, who took first team snaps at right guard - but only for the walk-through. Once the offensive line began to hit in earnest (and believe me, they did, as Callahan had them practicing with violent intent), the team ran the plays from today's menu: a lot of power runs, and quick-hitting pass plays with short route combinations. In short, we got a heavy dose of the goal line and short yardage packages.
For the walk-through, your starting defensive line consisted of Kenyon Coleman, Josh Brent and Tyrone Crawford. It was a good thing, therefore, that Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher could be seen working on the far field with the resistance bands. Neither can come back soon enough. On a lighter note: when the veterans jumped into their stretching period, the music blaring in the "Fun Zone" floated over to the fields, and Lawrence Vickers was boogieing (if you could call it that). Let's just say that he shouldn't go on Dancing With the Stars anytime soon.
Soon thereafter, Callahan and Wes Phillips divvied up the O-line, with Callahan taking the tackles and Phillips the interior guys. The OTs revisited some of their pre-practice work on slide technique and keeping their bodies above their legs so they could remain balanced while moving both backwards and sideways. Phillips worked with centers and guards on taking an initial step and then turning and punching out, both to the left or right.
The offense then gathered to work on the endgame: the two minute offense. They worked on completing a pass and then hustling to the new spot in an orderly fashion as Romo called the play, and then getting the next play off quickly and precisely.
After this, the team again broke into groups. The offensive line worked on down blocks as tight end coach John Garrett had his guys polish their technique on a blocking sled. At the same time, the defensive backs worked on backpedaling and then driving on the ball to go for an interception as the WRs worked on downfield blocking, focusing on getting their hands on the defender's chest and between his arms.
Then it was time for one-on-one coverage drills, with receivers lining up against corners and backs and tight ends facing off against linebackers. A couple of observations: During the drill, Dez Bryant leaped over Brandon Carr to make a pretty catch downfield. The two players both deploy a physical game, so watching them spar is a real treat. And speaking of treats: watching Jason Witten up close, from a field level view, shows more clearly how masterfully he pushes off and uses his body to gain separation from defenders. Oftentimes guys think they have him covered only for him to come open just as the ball arrives. You can see the frustration in their body language. Also: DeMarco Murray may have a funny, duck-footed gait, but he's really smooth and natural as a receiver.
During these pass drills, the offensive line worked on goal line and short-yardage blocking. One exercise I noticed was that Callahan had them attempt to push a blocking sled from their knees in one strenuous motion, to simulate the need to get a push and extend a block while getting low in short-yardage situations. On the goal line, after all, it's all about leverage. On the other field, the defensive line countered this by working on getting hands and pad level beneath the opposing offensive lineman and on filling and maintaining lane integrity on short yardage runs.
Callahan then drilled his guys on an interesting trap play: the entire line blocks down right, with the right guard pulling to his left to trap an unsuspecting defender. Callahan was very specific about spacing, meticulously carving out the lane in which the pulling guard should travel. Later, in the goal line period, we saw Felix Jones take a handoff, start center, and then cut left, behind a properly pulling guard. The play worked for a touchdown.
In that same goal line period, the second team broke out its version of the "jumbo" backfield, with Shaun Chapas at fullback and Jamize Olawale as the tailback. I'm not sure whether this is something we'll see in future (Olawale as the Cowboys Brandon Jacobs-type?), or if it was primarily a precautionary measure intended to protect injury-prone halfbacks. We also saw a lot of the shorter route combinations that the team had worked extensively in the 11-on-11, and saw again in the one-on-one passing drills: a heavy dose of slants, shallow crosses and underneath combo routes intended to exploit soft spots in packed-in goal line defenses.
After that, the team returned to two-minute situations, and we were treated to the day's circus moment: a desperation hook-and-lateral play that, among other things, featured a beautiful across-the-field pass from Dez Bryant to Tony Romo. The play ended in a fumbled backward lateral from Dwayne Harris to the aforementioned Bryant. Garrett then introduced a new situation: a long field with one time out and only time for two plays. The idea was to complete a 20-yard pass in the middle of the field, call time out and then attempt to execute a Hail Mary into the end zone. Neither the first or second team was successful in their Hail Mary attempts, but both were put in position by deep ins to Cole Beasley, who lined up with both the first and second teams.
After the horn sounded a break, they returned to goal line work, but this time at half-speed. This time, both Murray and Felix Jones carried the ball, lending credence to the "protect the investment" moreso than the "jumbo backfield" theory. For the better part of camp, the defense has had the edge over the guys in white, especially in the interior of the line. In today's goal line periods, the offense earned at least a draw. I couldn't help but wonder to what degree this was a byproduct of all the extra work Callahan has put in getting his guys up to speed. Continuing the afternoon's dominant pedagogical theme, Callahan could be heard yelling at his charges to get lower in their stances on goal line plays.
A final goal line note: because the the dearth of healthy TEs in camp, Jason Witten had to play on the second team goal line unit...and managed to haul in a pretty touchdown from Kyle Orton in the left flat. Long live The Senator!
This brought us to the final team period, during which they revisited the situations they had been working on all practice, with third and short and fourth and short in heavy rotation. Sadly, the drill soon devolved into a keystone Cops routine, as David Arkin and Harland Gunn struggled to execute several QB-center exchanges, with Kyle Orton and Stephen McGee, respectively. To ensure that they could actually run the plays they were calling, a frustrated coaching staff asked Phil Costa to serve as both second- and third-team centers (to be fair, a couple of shrewd observers noted that it was Orton's rather than Arkin's fault).
The coaches weren't the only ones showing frustration. This was the seventh consecutive day of practice, and it showed. The coaches had to push their tired charges hard all afternoon and, by practice's end, everyone was clearly tired and irritable. Josh Brent was screaming at the defense, and reserve tight end Andrew Sczerba got into a skirmish (his second of the day) after taking issue at a defender's hand placement. Tony Romo threw the ball down in disgust after another failed snap and again after he was "sacked" to end a play.
To their credit, the players soldiered through a tough day, earning a much-needed day off. On Thursday, they'll come back for three more practices before heading to Oakland for their first preseason contest. For the Cowboys players, I suspect the Raiders game can't come soon enough. Heck, they're ready to hit guys wearing another uniform right now; by Monday, that desire should be at a fever pitch. I can't hardly wait!
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