The third practice of Oxnard 2013 was a much anticipated affair. With the new CBA, players cannot wear pads until their third practice session (thus, when a new player joins the team as an injury replacement on, say, a Wednesday, he can't wear pads until Friday). With Tuesday being that magical day three, close followers of the team long ago marked it on their calendars as the day in which the season begins in earnest. After all, football without pads isn't football; it's, well, rugby.
Perhaps because the added element from previous sessions was the addition of pads, the coaches didn't ask their charges to digest a new playsheet today. Instead, they returned to the calls that they had worked on during Sunday and Monday's sessions, using the relative freshness of the material as an opportunity to make significant gains. Teaching the familiar allows both teacher and pupil to delve into specifics, making small yet significant adjustments.
As a result, we didn't see anything new in terms of plays and formations; the Cowboys cooked up a familiar diet, with 12 personnel, three-receiver sets, and zone blocking on offense and nickel packages on defense as main ingredients. Other familiar sights were an emphasis on the running game in the final team period, continued work on the screen game, and a focus on the basics: assignment, spacing, footwork, hand placement. If this were a math class, today's session would have been a review of basic addition, but with a sharper pencil.
Although it followed a familiar script, the day began with a twist. Typically, the 4:00 practice actually begins at 3:30, with a "blue period," during which the second- and third-string players get in some extra work before they are joined by the vets. Once together, the first order of business is a special teams session, during which a given kicking unit - punt return, for example - is broken down into component parts that are practiced separately before the entire operation is put back together. Today, however, they diverged from this schedule. There was no blue period, and the entire team started practice together at 4:00.
This was largely, if not exclusively, the result of the fact that, because today's work was to review what had been learned in the first two days of camp, there was no new material, and thus no need for a traditional walk-through in which the players get slow physical reps of the plays they have mentally reviewed in morning meetings. On Tuesday, the Dallas coaches used the morning practice for special teams work, focusing largely on punt return. Thus, when they did have a special team session on Tuesday, the players jumped right into covering punts, because the component parts had been practiced earlier in the day.
When they did begin (punctually, at 4:00 sharp), the defense took the near field and the offense positioned themselves on the far field. The defensive players divided into two groups, with one group simulating offensive players (by weirdly wearing colored balaclavas on their un-helmeted heads) and working on adjusting coverage assignments when offensive players go in motion. On the far field, two quarterbacks joined the team's receivers (under Garrett's supervision) to review the pattern combinations that they had practiced the last two days, while the other two QBs worked with the backs and O-line (with Bill Callahan's oversight) on the basic zone running schematics that had dotted the last two days' playsheets.
The team then got together on the near field for the first 11-on-11 period, which functioned as an uptempo jog-through. The players left their helmets on the sideline for this session; the emphasis was on polishing basic techniques moreso than mashing the guy across the line. Because James Hanna was sidelined with a sore hammy, we saw Gavin Escobar line up as the F-back, motioning into the backfield on several occasions. Thus, while most of the team reviewed already-covered material, Escobar was introduced to some new stuff. The former Aztec seemed to do just fine.
Once that was done, the team went into its warm-up and stretching segment; after the stretching session, the units returned to their assigned fields (defense near; offense far) for more position group work. A few highlights form that work, much of which revisited drills from the previous two days:
- The defensive players worked on generating turnovers, at all three levels. D-linemen and defensive backs worked on picking up loose balls; two linebackers went against a runner, with one holding him up while the other tried to strip the ball. Then Jason Garrett played quarterback, throwing passes into short zones; linebackers were supposed to close quickly and make an interception.
- Receivers coach Derek Dooley brought his guys over to the blocking sleds to work on setting their feet in preparation for a downfield block. This was not the first time this week that we have seen his charges focus on blocking technique. The Cowboys need to improve their running game; the receivers are training to do their part in leveraging this improvement.
- The offensive linemen revisited the basic zone blocking drills that they had worked earlier in camp. As before, the focus was on precise footwork and proper technique. As we saw on Monday, Frank Pollack and Wes Phillips teamed up to work the tight ends and offensive tackles on the nuances of blocking defensive ends and outside linebackers on the edges as Bill Callahan worked with the interior linemen on blocking defensive tackles and middle linebackers.
- One change-up from the heavy ZBS work: we witnessed the O-line work on an old staple of their power running arsenal wherein the right guard and tackle block down and the left guard pulls, leading the runner around the right end. This work suggests that, although the Cowboys will likely use more ZBS principles than they have in the past, they will by no means abandon the familiar staples of Garrett's running game. They'll have to work on them further, however, or at least wait for the starting OGs to return; when they called those runs in the team period, they met with little success, largely because the backup guards had great difficulty getting untangled and reaching the edge.
- At one juncture, Rod Marinelli gathered his "rushmen" for a series of exercises with dummy bags they had done during Sunday's first practice - indeed, it was during one of these that Tyrone Crawford suffered his Achilles injury. During this second go-through, Marinelli could be heard articulating his priorities for the unit - "Speed! Burst!" - as the D-linemen worked on accelerating as they changed directions en route to the "quarterback."
As the team wrapped up these position drills, things began to get more competitive. The tight ends went up against safeties and linebackers while receivers and corners went head-to-head in one-on-one drills. It was in this session that we saw one of the day's best plays, when UDFA receiver Eric Rogers, a study in concentration, went up over B.W. Webb to snag a pass with his hands as he was falling backwards to the turf. Also, Terrance Williams made the nice rolling end zone catch against Sterling Moore that I mentioned in my preliminary practice report. As this was taking place, the offensive line was working five-across, and we saw Travis Frederick taking snaps at right guard with the second unit.
After a water break, the team gathered for its first padded and helmeted 11-on-11 session. This was almost immediately halted by Garrett, who gathered the team and reamed them for what he felt to be a less-than acceptable level of concentration. Once they resumed, we saw them revisit Sunday and Monday's playsheets. On one play, Tony Romo made a pretty pass to Jason Witten between two defenders and just over the outstretched hands of Bruce Carter. This was telling; Kiffin's defense is designed to deny the deep ball and batten down the underneath zones. On this play, we saw just how accurately opposing signal callers will have to deliver the ball to get completions.
After this session, the team broke into a brief special teams period, featuring field goals/ FG defense and then returned to the punt return and coverage work that I described earlier as the mainstay of the morning's walk-through. As this was happening, we also saw a second set of one-on-one passing drills, with receivers versus corners and tight ends against linebackers and safeties. The O-line worked on sealing off the backside in ZBS runs to create cutback lanes.
Another water break was followed by a seven-on-seven session in the middle of the near field, which upstaged the much anticipated but ultimately disappointing one-on-one and two-on-two pass rushing drills. Why? With Anthony Spencer, Tyrone Crawford, Jay Ratliff, Nate Livings, Mackenzie Bernadeau, Ronald Leary and Jermey Parnell sidelined, many potentially interesting matchups weren't going to happen. As a result, the passing exercises stole the show. One scene-stealer was Anthony Armstrong, who flashed the deep speed that has kept him in a Cowboys uniform. Also, Gavin Escobar showed good wheels to go with his superb hands.
This work set the table for the final 11-on-11 team period. As was the case on Monday, the initial segment featured the running game - and one of the day's biggest moments, as Phillip Tanner found a nice crease over left guard and gained steam as he darted into the secondary only to be stopped cold in his tracks by J.J. Wilcox. Keep an eye on Wilcox; he's an instinctive player, and brings a load. We also saw a lot of 12 personnel and no small measure of three-receiver sets. Although the defense again won the day, enjoying penetration on running plays and generating enough pass rush to curtail several passes before they had an opportunity to develop, it was much closer decision than the first two final bouts had been.
A defensive advantage is pretty standard for the first week of camp; give the offensive guys time to work on their timing. In a week's time, we may well be writing about an increasingly precise offense had its way against Kiffin's defensive charges.
Daily Position Group Microscope: I initially thought that today would be the ideal time for a closer examination of the offensive line, whose work can only be judged once the pads come on. Given the continuing injuries to their first and second team guards, as well as to backup tackle Jermey Parnell, I thought it best to hold off for a week or so, when a more accurate assessment can be rendered. The positional spotlight turns instead to the receivers, who are a deeper and more competitive group than they were a year ago. The top of the depth chart looks the same: Dez Bryant and Miles Austin are deluxe game-changers who can hurt defenses in myriad ways. Behind them, myriad questions abound: Terrance Williams is struggling to become a pro receiver; Dwayne Harris has demonstrated he's capable of making plays, but hasn't shown mastery of the NFL route tree. As I mentioned in yesterday's quick recap, Cole Beasley will have to show he can run the tree's deeper stuff: posts, corners, and go routes. Danny Coale's balky knee swelled again, and he was sidelined for the day's session. Thus far, the argument could be made that the third best receiver in camp has been UDFA standout Eric Rogers. There are lots of options capable of complementing Bryant and Austin, but none capable of stepping in should either miss any significant time.
Player of the Day: Eric Rogers. As I suggested above, he has spent the entire camp making plays. To my mind, he offers what the team always hoped it could get from Andre Holmes: a tall receiver who can use his body to get between defenders and the ball to make plays. Whereas Holmes suffered from lapses in concentration, Rogers has shown tremendous focus, and it's been sustained; he's caught everything thrown at him, and shown himself to be a natural hands catcher. In short, he's a receiver, not an athlete playing receiver. But there's the rub: questions remain about his athleticism. Is he dynamic enough to get open against NFL defensive backs? I'll be watching him closely, especially during preseason games.
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