The Cowboys began week two of their Oxnardian sojourn by selecting material from the daily playsheets that Jason Garrett and his coaches had drawn up for the first week's work. This time around, the purpose was to build upon the lessons learned in camp's first week, focusing less on learning and incorporating basic technique work and more on applying that work to increasingly competitive situations.
As he has done since the pads came on, Jason Garrett's script for the practice built to a point. Position drills were interspersed with full unit work, team periods in which the offense squared off against the defense and, as a penultimate exercise, O-line vs. D-line and seven-on-seven competitive work. All of these sessions rehearse the skills necessary to succeed during the final team period. But to add a little spice to this, Garrett likes to raise the situational stakes for this final session, usually in the form of a two-minute situation.
Today's situation saw the offense deep in enemy territory, needing a touchdown to win. How did the team build to this point? Read on, faithful BTBer, read on!
As was the case at the beginning of the first week, today's session commenced with a half-hour long "blue period," in which the down-roster guys came onto the field to get some extra work in before the veterans arrived. Once the grizzled one came on the scene, the practice kicked off with some seven-on seven work in one end zone while, in the other, the offensive line drilled on material that would be tested in the team periods. Much of this material was from the man blocking chapter of the O-line's playbook: getting out in front of bubble screens; pulls and traps, some of which featured Travis Frederick pulling around a guard and leading his runner through a hole between guard and tackle.
Next up, we were treated to a special teams period during which the team worked on more nuanced aspects of punt and punt block/ return. Whereas week one saw an emphasis on the downfield aspects of returning and covering, today's work looked to line play. In one exercise, two players would run up a lane to block a punt, with whichever one was trailing concentrating on finding and scooping up the just-blocked ball. Other groups practiced blocking a man and then releasing to cover the punt as soon as the ball was kicked. Conversely, their opposites were to rush and then, once the ball was kicked, effect the transition to blocking for the punt returner.
The horn sounded at 4:15, and the team embarked upon a helmetless jog-through of the material from the day's playsheet. Although we saw a variety of personnel groupings, the most prevalent were "11," or three-receiver, sets, with a few plays out of three tight-end (or "13") groupings. Lest you think all this red zone material was too pass-happy, and thus destined to make your 'Boys in Blue soft, know that each team period began with a run session. Lastly, we saw some base packages, with two tight ends and two receivers. As the first team worked through the Monday playsheet, they rotated Nate Livings and Ron Leary (in his first training camp practice) at left guard. Meanwhile, David Arkin received every snap at right guard.
After their standard warm-up and stretching session, the team broke into offensive and defensive units. On the far field, the offense ran through the day's plays again, this time focusing on tempo, treating their 11-against-air work as if it were an end-of-half situation. As soon as a pass was completed, for example, an assistant would spot the ball, the sideline would call the formation, and the quarterback would get the team to the line, where he would call the play, often using hand signals. This isn't the first (or second, or third...) time we've seen the team practice their communication in no-huddle situations. It's clear from their behavior in camp that the Cowboys' offensive to-do list reads something like this (but not necessarily in this order):
1. Red Zone Efficiency
2. Develop an Effective Running Game
3. Improve Communication in and out of the Huddle
Next up were drills intended to help receivers secure the ball before contact. Each of the position groups went to an area of the field with one of the team's QBs, running short routes that settled into a zone, catching the ball with hands extended, then securing the ball before turning upfield to burst through "tacklers" (assistants holding pads). On the near field, D-linemen practiced firing out low and on ball movement; back seven players worked on getting off a block to make a tackle.
This matched up neatly with the goings-on on the other field, where tight ends and wide receivers practiced keeping linebackers and secondary players blocked. I watched receivers coach Derek Dooley work with his charges, telling them to approach the defender with big strides before shortening their strides as they got closer, so they could try to move him with a series of choppy, more balanced strides. He also emphasized having their weight on the proper leg as they met a defender, so they could turn him in the correct direction.
Dooley's receivers then joined the tight ends and quarterbacks so they could practice running sets of combo patterns, focusing on getting proper depth and spacing. Next, they applied this to crossing patterns, both outside and across the middle; two slot receivers would run crossing identical patterns, with the receiver in the right slot running a slightly deeper route than the man on the left.
Once this was accomplished, the skill position guys were joined by linebackers and safeties to drill one-on-one pass routes. Watching this drill, a couple of plays really stood out. On the first, Jakar Hamilton was burned badly by Gavin Escobar after he bit on a subtle fake. As I noted in my pet cat report, Hamilton is overly aggressive and it costs him. On another play, Bruce Carter was trailing Phillip Tanner, who had run a wheel route. The pass was underthrown a bit, and Carter leaped high in the air to make an almost casual leaping one-handed interception. He is a deluxe athlete.
Once this session wrapped, the offensive guys went to the far end of the field to work on their red zone package. As I noted in my shorter camp summary, the Cowboys frequently send multiple receivers into the end zone to stress the zone defenses that are called in that area of the field. When they do this, they often send a running back on an underneath crossing route, sometimes after a delay, so that he can exploit underneath zones that have been expanded by the three or four targets that have flooded the end zone. Indeed, Lance Dunbar scored on just such a play on the team period late last week.
As they did this, we saw the offensive line coached to dust the cobwebs off an old staple of Garrett's running game: a power edge run wherein the tight end blocks down on the defensive end and the tackle to his inside pulls around him, leading the back outside. As I wrote earlier, the play was chillingly effective in 2008-09, when Marc Colombo would pull around a Jason Witten downblock and lead Marion Barber around the edge. Later, in the team period, we saw Tyron Smith pull out and lead Lance Dunbar to the sideline for a nice gain. Shades of 2009...
This signaled a slight shift from what we had seen in week one, when most, but not all, of the offensive line work had concentrated on zone blocking techniques. Today, we witnessed a full array of man blocking staples: cross-blocks, pulling, directing the opponent in a specific direction rather than taking him where he wants to go.
Next up was the second team period, and the day's first earnest eleven-on-eleven work. Remember the offensive "to-do" list above; we saw all three items checked off in this session. The team began with an extended series of calls from the "run" column of the playsheet. We also saw a goodly amount of nickel runs later in the period. After this, they returned to the red zone package, with both units implementing what they had practiced separately in an earlier period. And finally, they revisited the no-huddle material they had practiced earlier. In an interesting combination, Murray ran a sweep left out of three tight end set. On the next play, out of the same set, Romo faked to Murray, rolled out, and hit "blocking tight end" Dante Rosario for a nice gain downfield.
During this period, we saw some movement at defensive tackle. With Ben Bass predominantly aligned at SDE, Sean Lissemore seemed to be giving up some of his first-team snaps to Nick Hayden, and Jerome Long and Jeris Pendleton appeared to have been elevated up the depth chart. Both were situated with the second team; Long even received a handful of first-team snaps. I'll continue to monitor this situation, with interest.
When this segment concluded, the team gathered for special teams work, with kickoff and kick return as the first order of business. As was suggested in my post-practice summary, Eric Frampton is running with the first team kick coverage unit. I wonder: might the coaching staff be setting up a Frampton-Danny McCray position battle? And: might Frampton have an edge because he offers good-enough teams play without being the liability in coverage that McCray is?
The post-colon title of today's report is "mixin' and matchin.'" This is derived largely from the next period, during which we saw the Dallas coaches run through substitution possibilities: Tony Romo lined up with the first team O-line and the second- and third-team skill position guys. Conversely, Miles Austin took snaps with the second unit. Then, they subbed in various offensive linemen: Edawn Coughman took Doug Free's spot for a snap; later, Darrion Weems took a snap from Tyron Smith. I've already noted that Nate Livings and Ron Leary were splitting snaps at LG. It appears the coaches want to see how the backups fare when stationed alongside the starters. On Monday, the results were at best mixed.
Following this, the team broke into the two-group "competitive period" that has been preceding the final team period in recent days. These physical seven-on-seven passing exercises and one-on-one and two-on-two OL-DL drills get the players' competitive juices flowing and set the table for the practices' most physical segment, the final team period. In the OL-DL contests, Ron Leary did a really nice job picking up a Lissemore-Long stunt, and Coughlin and Kevin Kowalski did similar yeoman's work executing a switch on a Ben Bass-Monte Taylor twist. This was the exercise wherein Rod Marinelli blew a fuse, as I noted in my earlier summary.
While Leary appeared to hold his own, Darrion Weems did not; indeed, he was beaten fairly regularly. Coming into camp, I had high hopes for Weems, who I had envisioned (and seen on his college tape) as an athletic tackle with good feet. Instead, he has looked ponderous of foot. Watching him makes the acquisition of the horribly out-of-shape Demetress Bell understandable. The combination of Weems' struggles and Jermey Parnell's initial difficulties and subsequent injury has made backup offensive tackle one of the positions about which I am most concerned. In Tyron Smith and a somewhat resurgent Free, the Cowboys have superb-to-solid starters. If one of them goes down? Yikes.
The final team period began with another situational two-minute drill. In this Garrett-concocted scenario, the offense started inside the defense's twenty with 28 seconds on the clock and no time outs. And Garrett turned up the heat on the burner; whereas previous end-of-half scenarios has featured two or three point defecits that might be overcome by a field goal, today the scoreboard read 24-20. The offense would need a touchdown.
After a handful of short completions and a spike to stop the clock, the first-team defense forced two Romo incompletions, leaving a fourth and goal with under four seconds remaining. In a gutsy move, Bill Callahan called for a DeMarco Murray run. The former Sooner found a crease off of left guard and scored standing up, leading to resounding echoes of "Cowboys win!! Cowboys win!!"
Daily Position Group Microscope: Offensive line. The position that caused the most concern, anxiety, ire and consternation this offseason appears, at this juncture, to be in solid shape. Let's start with the positives: Tyron Smith has the tools to be a perennial All-Pro; he just needs further seasoning on the left side. Rookie center Travis Frederick has taken over all the line calls and, by all accounts, has performed masterfully. He'll surely make mistakes, but his power and smarts are already quite apparent. Right tackle Doug Free is performing much better than he did in 2012, largely because he's trusting his technique more. When he does so, he's a solid-to-good tackle. And one of camp's most pleasant surprises thus far has been David Arkin, who was widely written off by observers. Now, after two years in an NFL weight room, he's repaying the club's faith. Like Free, Arkin performs well when he uses good technique.
There are, of course, some negatives, which mostly manifest in the form of questions. The first of these is at left guard, where Nate Livings and Ron Leary have just dipped their toes in the proverbial water, and will probably be competing for the starting job throughout the summer. Whoever doesn't start will provide quality backup services, as will Phil Costa, Kevin Kowalski and/ or Mackenzie Bernadeau. None of these guys makes me feel secure as a starter. As a backup, I like them much better. However, as as I mentioned above, I don't like the situation at backup tackle, where none of the candidates have shown anything thus far. The likeliest lad, Jermey Parnell, might well be sidelined for the better part of camp, so the questions will linger...
Player of the Day: DeVonte Holloman. The sixth round pick struggled a bit in the first couple of camp practices, but has come on of late, thinking less and relying on his natural gifts. A few days ago, I watched him give up separation in coverage drills against backs and tight ends; today, he regularly blanketed his man. On one play, he smothered Joseph Randle, who had no chance to make the reception. And he played with aggression in the team period, delivering strong blows that could be heard across the field.
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