The watchword for Thursday's camp session was "situational," as in "situational day," which was how Jason Garrett characterized the practice in his mid-day press conference before the assembled media. This was not a radical departure from the practices we had seen thus far; indeed, throughout camp, Garrett and his coaching staff have tried to use game-like situations as a way to test the lessons learned during each day's various teaching sessions. As a result, most of the full team periods that conclude practices have featured at least one situational exercise, such as a two-minute drill with only one time out remaining.
On Thursday, however, Garrett and his staff ratcheted up the amount of situational work, asking their charges to apply lessons already learned to multiple semi-pressurized in-game scenarios. So, we saw continued work on familiar stuff from the playbook - screens, red zone, the "13" personnel packages - but with less emphasis on such things as technique, assignment, position and spacing and more on the clear-headed application of these the kinds of game situations they'll face on Sunday night in Canton. This built to a point: a miniature blue-white scrimmage in which we saw ones face off against ones and twos vs. twos.
The prevailing news of the day was the continued protean nature of the available players. As was well documented by the mainstream media, the Cowboys were missing four members of the interior O-line group: backup center Ryan Cook as well as guards Ray Dominguez, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings. As one position's numbers dwindled, however, another's swelled: Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley returned to action and Danny Coale participated in a combination of drills and sideline work with the training staff.
Today, the team began with a proper "blue period," during which the second- and third-team players came out on the field early to work closely with their position coaches to review techniques learned earlier in camp. Since today was not going to have much of this kind of work, Garrett and Co. apparently wanted to give the youngsters a little brush-up in situations with excellent student-teacher ratios before moving on to more advanced lessons. One of the highlights of today's blue period was defensive line coach Rod Marinelli working very intensely (and intensively) with the down-roster defensive tackles.
As per usual, the Cowboys began slowly, starting off by jogging through the day's playscript without helmets before going into their pat-and-go and stretching sessions. Once properly warm, the offense broke into first, second and third units, with each running a hurry-up, no-huddle offense against air, starting at about their own 25-yard line. With every completion, they would hustle to the line, get set and then get the next play off as soon as possible, Once the first unit had gone about twenty yards, the second team began, such that there was a moment when all three units were on the field at the same time. A note: even thought we have given Alex Tanney a lot of love recently, Nick Stephens is still the third quarterback; although they rotate third-team snaps, Stephens goes first, before Tanney.
Next up, the various offensive positions groups worked on turnover prevention. The receivers paired up, with one lining up behind the ballcarrier's right shoulder. Placing his left hand on the ballcarrier's left shoulder, he followed him as they jogged along, trying to chop the ball out. Similarly, the tight ends and running backs ran through gauntlets of teammates trying to punch the ball free. As they did this, the offensive linemen practiced staying balanced while punching out against a series of oncoming opponents.
After this, some of these groups teamed up for the next set of drills. Running backs joined QBs, who would hand the ball off on what looked like a stretch play. Assistant coaches held cards with numbers on them ("8") that they would flip up suddenly after the handoff, indicating which hole the back should choose. The back was then supposed to make a quick, decisive cut in that hole. Next, they practiced a play action pass pattern that Emmitt Smith used to perfection in the 1993 NFC Championship Game: the QB fakes a hand off between the tackles, and then hits the back who has cut sharply to the left or right.
As this was taking place, receivers coach Derek Dooley worked with receivers on using their hands to get free from a defensive back when running a dig route. He showed his charges how to use a quick arm chop to get the opponent's hands away from the receiver's body, creating separation. Once this was executed satisfactorily, the receivers joined the throwers and runners, and they worked on individual pass patterns.
Meanwhile, the offensive line and tight ends broke into familiar groups: the tackles and tight ends worked with Frank Pollack and Wes Phillips on double-teaming a defensive end, with one blocker then peeling off to get on a second-level defender. Bill Callahan worked with the interior O-linemen on a similar exercise, wherein a center and guard would double-team a defensive tackle; once he was secured, one would peel off to get to a linebacker.
This wasn't the most fulsome group. With four members of the interior O-line group missing, Callahan was working with a skeleton crew, even though recently signed former TCU guard Jeff Olsen (for those keeping score, he wore number 69) participated in a surprisingly high percentage of the day's work. Poor Callahan had just enough players to run a three-on-two drill. To make matters worse, guardsand Ron Leary were forced by necessity to take both first and and second team snaps. Such an overload, you may recall, proved to be a major part of their undoing in 2012's injury-riddled camp, so the coaching staff must find them some relief - and fast. With so much depending on these guys, the team can't afford the same burnout this year.
Today, Callahan's interior guys reprised a drill that I had seen three or four times earlier in camp. It's the interior part of an off-tackle power play: the backside guard pulls around the center (who shoots out to block a second-level player, presumably the MLB), working to hit a blocking bag (i.e. a defensive end or OLB) with his inside shoulder, thus sealing the edge. The missing piece here is the playside tackle downblocking on a defensive tackle or hooking the DE. As is the case whenever we see such an exercise, we saw this isolated activity in action in the second team period, with a good example happening when when the second units were going head to head. Monte Kiffin's defense clogged the playside, but Phillip Tanner found a nice backside cutback lane, for a nice gain.
While this was taking place, special teams coach Rich Bisaccia worked with Chris Jones on a special punting technique. He would "snap" the ball to Jones, who held the ball with the forward tip down, so that he could easily strike it, thus creating a backward spin that, it was hoped, would cause the ball to bounce backward when it hit the ground. Sure enough, this private work had a larger application. In the special teams period, one of the situations that was covered was punting inside the opponent's territory. The ball was snapped at the 41, and Jones used this technique to try to get the ball to hit short of the end zone, bouncing backwards. Shades of Mat McBriar...
After a water break, the players went into the second team period. During this session, the team deployed in 13 personnel a lot, especially in the first, run-heavy segment. This was followed by a new situation: getting the ball out from near their own goal line. As the previous segment had, this featured a lot of running plays and a preponderance of three-tight packages. However, Callahan and crew crossed up expectations with a couple of deep-ish passes out of 13 personnel, including one play action pass that featured Jason Witten as the deep receiver, on a sail pattern. Sadly, the only thing that sailed was Romo's pass, which was over the Senator's head. In another, the Cowboys lined three tight ends on the right side, in a bunch formation. Although this looked like a potential "heavy run" formation, they passed out of it, using the bunch to keep at least two of the TEs from being bumped at the line.
A curious and unexplained development: as explained above, in both segments, starting guards Arkin and Leary also worked with the second team when the second units came on the field. Curiously, Tony Romo twice joined them for a handful of plays before Kyle Orton joined his unit-mates.
Next, we saw a special teams period, which had a varied menu: offensive players working on their tackling technique; field goal and field goal block teams (with Dan Bailey uncharacteristically missing two field goals, giving him three misses on the season); punting from the end zone; punting in opponents territory (trying to get the ball to bounce backward, as we have already discussed, as well as kicking it high enough for the gunners to run underneath and catch it). During punt coverage drills, Eric Frampton looked good, once beating a double team block by Anthony Amos and Xavier Brewer. I think Frampton is in a legitimate battle with Danny McCray for a roster spot as a safety/ special teams ace; make sure to add them to your "to-watch" list on Sunday.
The competitive period once again split the team into two groups: seven-on-seven and OL-DL. The coaches "situationalized" the seven-on-seven period, not only by making it a red zone exercise, but also by dialing in specific downs and distances. As the offense was setting up for one play, an offensive assistant yelled out, "3rd and four; see the sticks! 3rd and four; see the sticks!" to remind the players of the situation in which they were being immersed. At the other end of the field, the news for the O-line was both good and bad. Ron Leary did a good job handling Jason Hatcher, who has been spectacular thus far in camp. His next-door neighbor on the line, Tyron Smith, had a bad day against DeMarcus Ware, who beat him handily on several occasions.
Their competitive juices fired, the entire team met for the concluding team period, which functioned largely as an end-of-game scrimmage in miniature. Tony Romo and the first team offense got the ball against the first defense with about two and a half minutes left on the clock and about 60 yards to go, trailing 24-20. When they scored (thanks in no small part to a terrific Romo-to-Witten completion to the four on the same play on which he had earlier overthrown Witten) with fewer than forty seconds remaining, the second unit took over and Kyle Orton tried to lead them down the field against the second defense. After a couple of short completions, the drive fizzled. Orton's final pass fell incomplete, signalling the end of practice.
As these team-on-team affairs always are, it was a bittersweet finale: "Cowboys win!! Cowboys lose!!"
Player of the Day: Ron Leary. On a day filled with hand-wringing at the growing number of sidelined interior linemen (compounded by reports that Nate Livings' injury might be longer-term than initially anticipated), Leary alleviated a great deal of the "here we go again" anxiety with his performance. He showed increasing agility in the run game, getting out quickly in the above mentioned power run drills and, more importantly, demonstrated strong pass blocking, stymieing Jason Hatcher in the one-on-one session. With Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick on either side of a developing Leary, we can begin to see the emergence of a dominant side for the Cowboys O-line in 2013 - the side to which Bill Callahan will call runs on crucial 3rd and shorts.
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