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Cowboys 2013 Training Camp Practice Summary: Something Old, Something New

On the last of five consecutive practice days, the Cowboys not only rehearsed a lot of familiar material, but also opened up a new chapter in the playbook.

Competition throughout the roster has raised the level of line play.
Competition throughout the roster has raised the level of line play.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, the Cowboys had their fifth consecutive practice day, which amounts to five days of two-a-days, if you consider the morning walk-throughs as official practices (and, believe me, the coaches and players do). Jason Garrett's bunch did yeoman's work staying energized and focused through one of the most arduous stretches of a long preseason, closing it out with a measured yet physical afternoon.

On the day, we were treated to a lot of familiar material. In my long report from yesterday's practice, I noted that the three top offensive priorities were red zone efficiency, improving the running game and establishing better communication in no-huddle situations. Indeed, we saw the team work on these in some form or another in every practice. But the defense has a pretty clear priority list as well. Judging from the exercises through which Monte Kiffin and his staff have put their charges, I'd say that their priority checklist reads as follows:

1. Generate turnovers
2. Generate turnovers
3. Generate turnovers

Of course, the defensive unit has worked on many other aspects of the game, such as getting upfield on the snap, pressuring the quarterback, keeping everything in front of them, and swarming to the ball. But rarely, if ever, has a practice gone by when we haven't seen a turnover-generating drill of some sort. Today, we saw a reprise of drills wherein linebackers and defensive backs come up behind ballcarriers and chop the ball out, then work on scooping up the ball to return it. In the team periods, the defensive coaches can be frequently heard to say "get the ball," both before and during plays.

Other familiar ground involved the screen game. In the first ten days, we have seen them work on a staggering variety of screens, both traditional running back screens and several different kinds of WR screen. Today, they worked on the "rocket screen," also known as a tunnel screen because the play is designed to get the ball to a perimeter receiver quickly while pulling offensive linemen and perimeter blockers (i.e., other wideouts) set up a "tunnel" for the receiver to run through. Early in practice, we saw the offensive unit run these against air, working on timing and spacing; later, we saw them unveiled in the full team period.

Watching this emphasis on the screen game, it is becoming apparent that the Cowboys anticipate being blitzed this season, perhaps with great frequency. If you will recall their last playoff win, against the Eagles in 2009, Jason Garrett's gameplan was based on countering the Eagles famous "A-gap" blitzes, by getting the ball out quickly to the perimeter, where the defense was outnumbered. In that game, it worked to perfection; quick screens to wideouts Kevin Ogletree and Miles Austin went for sizable gains and put the Philly D on its heels. The idea in 2013, I believe, is to do the same with any defensive coordinators who think to exploit a perceived softness in the interior of the Cowboys O-line, a move which is likely going to help open up the running game.

Not everything we saw the Cowboys do was old hat. After spending the duration of camp rehearsing material from the base (i.e., first and second-down) package, and then incorporating third-down and red zone material, the team finally opened up the playbook's final chapter, introducing the short-yardage and goal line packages. Many of us had been eagerly anticipating this, for myriad reasons. Mine was to see how they would operate in such situations without a fullback on the roster. Would they use backup linebacker Caleb McSurdy, as they had in OTAs? Perhaps a backup guard, or a defensive lineman who had played an offensive skill position in high school would get the call?

Instead, they stayed true to their stated intention to use versatile tight ends instead of comparatively one-dimensional fullbacks. Sure enough, they used one of their tight ends as an F-back in short yardage. They did this with an interesting twist or two, however. Firstly, the coaches would call for "23 personnel," which is two backs and three tight ends, with no receivers, and four tight ends would run into the huddle. Three of these would line up on the line and the fourth would set up in the backfield, usually as the fullback in a "power I" formation. What that means is that, in goal line situations, one of the tight ends is "playing fullback" - or at least their personnel package is naming him as one.

The fact that their short-yardage package features several plays with four tight ends lends further support to my pet theory, offered in last night's post-practice summary and immediate purloined by ESPN Dallas writers Todd Archer and Tim MacMahon, that the team might keep five (or more) tight ends on the roster. Consider: if an entire part of the gameplan requires four TEs on the field at the same time, the gameday roster would have to have at least five, to accommodate an injury, no?

Another piece of good news from today's practice was that, in the pre-practice "blue period," Jay Ratliff was the lone D-lineman on the field, where he spent time working with assistant D-line coach Leon Lett on handfighting. Observing their work felt like I was in a boxing gym watching two fighters spar. He wasn't dressed out, but Ratliff later took a few reps in the low-impact basic defensive line drills. To my mind, this was all good news, and suggested that the old warrior upon whom so much depends is getting close to rejoining the fray.

And, finally, some thoughts on the state of the roster, formulated while watching the offensive and defensive linemen face off in the "competitive period" that immediately precedes the final all-out team period. Last year, the team had O-linemen in camp, such as Jeff Adams and Levi Adcock, that had no realistic chance of making an NFL roster; they were the very embodiment of the phrase "camp bodies." This year, every offensive lineman can conceivably make a roster and, as such, offers high quality reps in one-on-one periods.

The same goes for the D-line. As a result, even down-the-roster skirmishes, such as those between, say, Edawn Coughman and Monte Taylor, are good battles between worthy opponents. To my mind, this serves as an example of the "competition throughout the roster" that we have oft heard from Jason Garrett. In the past couple of camps, this has been in part lip service; the team wasn't deep enough for legit competition at the roster's furthest reaches. In 2013, however, this is the reality, and it's exciting to watch.

Stay tuned, loyal readers; I'll have a full report on the day's action later tonight/ early tomorrow morning (depending on your time zone), and will resume two-a-days on Thursday.


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