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Cowboys Practice Report: Back to Basics, With A Twist

Observations from the Cowboys' fifth training camp practice, in which all three phases focused on red zone work.

Guess who made a play today...and then got hurt?
Guess who made a play today...and then got hurt?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Watching consecutive Cowboys practices gives this observer a clear sense that Jason Garrett and his coaching staff are trying to balance an emphasis on fundamentals with the integration of newer, more exotic, or specifically situational material. Today, we saw that balance in action, as the offense deployed mostly in sets (largely two-TE or 3-WR sets) with which we had become familiar earlier in camp, yet added new wrinkles, moving the component parts around the formation in previously unseen ways, and applied them to new situations, specifically the red zone.

Because the focus of the day's work was the red zone, the defense worked more in zone coverages that we had seen thus far in camp. In response, the offensive plays on today's playsheet featured a lot of zonebusters, route combinations designed to exploit the soft spots in underneath zones, the deep sidelines and, a red zone favorite, up the seams. After spending the afternoon ingesting this material, the players were challenged to apply it in pressure situations during the final team period, in two-minute situations. After all, we hope that every two-minute situation Tony Romo and Co. face turns into a red zone situation, no?

I'll have more on this in the longer report. For now, here are some thoughts on today's action:

  • There were several developments on the injury front. News that Miles Austin and Jason Hatcher weren't going to participate in the day's practice sent shivers of anxiety up and down Cowboys fandom's collective spines, but it turned out that their absences were the result of "veteran off day" more than it was the fact that either injury was a real concern. Both should be back sooner rather than later.
  • In Jason Hatcher's absence, Ben Bass moved back inside, and took exclusively defensive tackle snaps in both drills and team periods. A byproduct of this move was that Cameron Sheffield found himself as the starting strongside defensive end. It looks like the team feels that Kyle Wilber provides more on the weakside, where he doesn't have to hold the point in the same way, and where his quick first step can be put to better use.
  • Along these lines, both Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley received first-team Austin's snaps - Williams on plays where Austin lined up outside, and Beasley on plays where number 19 was scheduled to align in the slot. Both acquitted themselves well, as did Anthony Armstrong, who had his best performance of the young camp, shining especially in the final team period. I'll have more on his performance in the longer report. One upshot of this is that, with players like Armstrong, Jared Green and Eric Rogers conducting themselves well and making plays on a regular basis, Danny Coale's inability to get on the field is putting him perilously far behind in the race for the final receiver spot.
  • Although Nate Livings jumped right in with the first team in the initial team period (the glorified walk-through sans helmets), the Cowboys brought him along slowly today. In other instances, he shared first team snaps with Kevin Kowalski. This was interesting, largely because David Arkin continued receiving all the first-team work at right guard. Although he has been the object of Cowboys fans ire (and scorn, and derision), Arkin may well have finally found his groove. I'm not saying that he's going to win a starting position, but I do think he's much more likely to play on Sundays than I would have thought a mere week ago.
  • I mentioned above that we saw a couple of new wrinkles in familiar personnel groupings. Thus far, we have seen the base offense, with two tight ends, quite a bit, and we've seen them move the tight ends all over the formation, in a wide array of combinations. Today, we saw them motion both tight ends out wide, as split ends. The first team did this with Escobar and Witten; the second team then repeated it, but with Dante Rosario and Andre Smith. In both cases, it left wideouts in the slot, where they could do damage underneath or use their speed to create mismatches down the seams.
  • Another wrinkle was the introduction of "22" personnel: two tight ends and two running backs, with one receiver. In this instance, Romo was in shotgun, with Lance Dunbar on his right and Phillip Tanner on his left. At the snap, both ran pass patterns, and Romo hit Dunbar on a screen pass. As has been mentioned before, the Cowboys have shown an extensive and varied screen game thus far in camp; this was yet another example.
  • Yes, its too early to begin handicapping the special team units. A couple of days ago, I noted this very fact - and then went on to point out that this year's special teams "core" players, the guys who appear on every or almost every special teams unit, were familiar faces. Today's special teams periods, which focused on punting from inside the red zone and returning punts when the opponent is backed up in said fashion, lent further credence to the thesis that the current core consists of Phillip Tanner, Dwayne Harris, Alex Albright, Danny McCray, DeVonte Holloman and J.J. Wilcox. When using Coty's amazing Roster Builder to tease out various 53-man roster scenarios, be sure to take the above into consideration.
  • For the third time in five practices, the defensive position groups spent time working on turnover drills. The linemen and linebackers practiced coming up behind a player and punching the ball out; the defensive backs worked once again on their "peanut punch," named after Bears' cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman, who used the move to great effect, forcing an unworldly ten fumbles. All three units spent time on scooping up fumbles. It appears they don't want the Cowboys defenders to merely fall on the ball; rather, they want them to practice securing and scoring.
  • Speaking of turnovers, one of the plays that elicited the largest response from the assembled crowd was a Matt Johnson interception during the second team period. He was in two-deep, and was thus responsible for covering the right half of the field. Romo threw a wobbly pass on a corner route (it might have been tipped), and Johnson stepped in front of it and made his way a good 30 yards downfield before he was thrown to the ground by DeMarco Murray. Unsurprisingly, the fragile Johnson came up limping, but it didn't appear to be serious; he participated in special teams drills soon thereafter.

In closing, I think it interesting that, after conceding a slight lead to the offense in full team action on Wednesday, the defense came back with a vengeance today, and outplayed the offense, sometimes by a significant margin. Witnessing this, I kept wondering whether the offense would have preferred that hyper-competitive guys like Sean Lee, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, and J. J. Wilcox didn't have that extra day to sit and stew. They and their mates were certainly salty this afternoon.


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