As was the case in 2013, the Cowboys' training camp practices start an hour and a half later than they did in earlier seasons. As a result, our reports of the doings at camp are pushed back, often so much so that they are published too late for our loyal East Coast readers to enjoy before bedtime. Because this simply will not do, I will be writing a shorter post (always labeled "summary") filled with general comments directly after the session ends, so that our East Coast brethren will have a little info before beddy-bye, and then follow that up with a longer post (labeled "Camp Report") that West Coasters should get that night and others can access the next morning. Okay, so much for the necessary housekeeping; let's get to the good stuff, shall we?
As has been well broadcast, Jason Garrett has decided to keep the offense and defense on separate fields for the first two days of camp, not coincidentally the two CBA-mandated padless practices. Rather than having both units run plays against themselves (or against air), therefore, they appear to be using these two days to revisit basic techniques and skills - material that isn't situation- or formation-specific: hand placement, firing out quickly, getting low, breaking down and tackling. So, rather than taking on a couple of pages from the playbook as the day's agenda, they drank deeply from the spring from which the playbook flows.
A proviso regarding this practice report: I spent the majority of my time on the defensive side of the field, for two reasons: I want to get as clear a handle as I possibly can on the various defensive personnel in camp, their skill sets and the various permutations in which they might be deployed. Also, I find their essential drills much more interesting that those on the offensive side of the ball. After all, you can only watch offensive line hand placement for so long. Please bear with me for a day or two while I give Tony Romo and company short shrift. I promise to make it up to you once the pads come on.
After a half-hour "blue period" during which the younger players have the opportunity to work on the day's plays and drills before the veterans take the field, the horn sounded to begin practice at precisely 3:45, and the team began training camp with the same drill they started off last year's affair: a punt coverage drill wherein players (mostly defensive backs) try to get off a "block" at the line of scrimmage (a pad held by a teammate, as you can see in the photo) and then surround the punt returner, often using the sideline to hem him in.
On the way, they are instructed to run inside or outside some small orange cones placed on the ground, and represent the opposing punt return team's downfield blockers. The object was for the coverage guys to run just to the inside or outside of those cones; in games, this is what they'd have to do to maintain lane integrity.
Next, Bisaccia ran a close cousin of the above drill, in which the players were further removed from the punt returner (or, more likely, further from the end zone when they punt), and have to run a few steps, evade a blocking dummy, and then track down the ballcarrier. As this was happening, the other position groups worked on the far field in combinations, running through the basic run sets and pass patterns that they would revisit in the practice's lone 11-on-11 session.
As I noted in my earlier practice summary, the team enjoys a distinct advantage this year that it did not last year, when they were installing a new defensive system and had a new special teams coach in Bisaccia. Although the defense has a new coordinator, the system and nomenclature remain the same, and Bisaccia returns for his second season. Consequently, the players who were with the team last season are able to go back to step one, but in a different way. Rather than learning it anew, they are able to revisit an old friend, making subtle technique refinements instead of laboring to integrate the entire system. In short, they are polishing and perfecting.
It was not only Bisaccia's special teams that began where they had begun last year. The offensive line's version of square one was a drill wherein two linemen execute a double team and then one peels off to block a second level defender. I spent much of the afternoon on the defense's side of the field, and noticed a bevy of drills that were part of the first day's menu in 2013, most obviously turnover drills: a "punch-out" drill wherein defensive backs come up behind a ballcarrier and try to punch the ball out; linebackers worked on a "force fumble and recovery" drill; defensive linemen worked on getting a loose ball and then, once one of the had secured it, turning upfield to set up a return.
At 4:00, a horn sounded and the players broke into their only 11-on-11 session of the day. Although the session was supposed to be conducted at a "walk-through" tempo, I found it to be a very spirited affair. Part of this is on the coaching staff, who were shouting at the players to hustle in and out of each play. Moreover, they incorporated a hint of what is to come in future camp practices, introducing the "situational pressure" that is usually reserved for the culminating "full team" (i.e., 11-on-11) period. Today, it was only down and distance; nevertheless, it served to generate some uptempo play.
As is the case in a typical camp practice, the first full team period, now that the players were "warm," was followed by a stretching session. Unlike in the past, however, the stretching session was focused on the lower core and legs: a series of lower back, quad, hamstring and glute stretches was interspersed between "striding" sessions in which the whole team high-stepped across the short side of the field. Like this:
As mentioned in the summary, it's quite evident that the team believes job one is to reduce (and, preferably, eliminate) the soft tissue injuries that plagued them last year.
Along these lines, newer guys appear to be getting blended into the mix slowly. Uche Nwaneri, for example, was without a helmet today, and participated somewhat peripherally. I assume he's being eased in after not participating in the off-season program - and that other new additions such as Dez Briscoe, Rolando McClain and Dallas Walker will be brought along slowly as well. On the other side of this coin is Matt Johnson, who participated in all drills and appeared to make it through the entire practice without hurting himself. If you want evidence that the team's emphasis on avoiding soft tissue injuries is working, look no further than this refreshing development.
After the warm-up and stretching session, the team broke into offense and defense, with each unit taking one of the two practice fields. As was the case last year, the first order of post-stretch business was for the offensive unit to run plays against air at a brisk tempo while the defensive players focused on turnover drills (you may recall that Kiffin had his charges work on generating turnovers every day in camp last year). In a sense, these exercises, by their daily nature, show us what the respective units want to emphasize: tempo (offense) and turnovers (defense).
Next, the defensive line worked on firing out with the movement of the ball rather than on a sound. Leon Lett would hold a ball out in front of him and sometimes make a sound when he snapped it, sometimes make a sound and not snap it, and sometimes snap it without a sound. The objective was for players to move not on sound but on motion. Later, they worked on firing out forward on the snap, and then cutting sharply to the right or left, depending on which way one of the coaching assistants would run. This was intended to simulate a running play, in which their job is to first fire forward and then to pursue. The first order of business in this scheme is to gain forward penetration - before running to the ball with your hair on fire.
As has been well documented, one of Rod Marinelli's motivational tools is salty language. He dipped into his bag of swears early and often on Thursday, distributing expletives to emphasize both praise and condemnation - but mostly the latter. When praising his pupils, it was usually because of a positive demonstration of speed; whenever a D-lineman would fire off the ball, he's shout, "That's it! Speed!" This continued into and through what one wag called the "Crawford drill" - the same bag drill on which Tyrone Crawford injured his Achilles in last year's first camp practice. This time around, thankfully, there were no injuries, other than a slight cramp in Jerome Mincey's left calf that required a bit of rubbing during a water break.
When the defensive linemen went into the off-field pen that holds the blocking sleds, the defensive backs took over a bigger chunk of real estate to work on an interesting drill: a DB would run straight at a coach, who would indicate a direction at the last instant. The player would have to cut sharply in that direction, then wrap his arms around a large inflated ball that was bounced just as he cuts. The drill enacts the process of breaking down, evading interference and wrapping up in the open field. The coaches instructed their guys to avoid crossing their feet (you cannot tackle or break down if you cross over) and to stay low (tackling high leads to getting bowled over) at speed. Later, they revisited this work in a "closing down and wrapping up" drill in space.
Once this was finished, the defensive line practiced their timing on stunts, with one man hesitating so that others could get upfield and occupy blockers before he made his move. Later, the D-line was split into two groups, and the DEs were asked to get the edge on an offensive tackle (Leon Lett with big blue arm pads) and to scoop up a tennis ball on the ground. This simulated the "dip and run" essential to edge rushing; after all, you can't help but dip and bend when scooping up a tennis ball at speed - and knowing that they'll have to get low helps defensive ends to stay low during their rush, which is the key.
At the same time, the linebackers worked on shadowing a moving/ pulling offensive lineman, and then cutting inside his "block" to get to a running back cutting back into the hole. Later, they worked on covering a back or tight end, then shedding him and going for an interception. I believe this was intended to hone their ability to cover a receiver across their zone, and then suddenly to jump a route in an adjacent zone - something that Sean Lee does masterfully. As this was happening, Jerome Henderson led his cornerbacks in an exercise wherein they tried to pin a receiver against the sideline. He could be heard to exhort them, "That's right, pin him, pin him!" as they went through the drill. The safeties worked on backpedaling and intercepting the ball at its high point.
Back to the defensive line, there was a moment during a drill in which a defensive assistant reminded Martez WIlson, "It's a two-way go, 'tez, a two-way go." Wilson was playing the right defensive end position at the time, and it got me wondering whether the Cowboys might be taking a page out of Seattle's defensive playbook. The Seahawks, you will recall, play a similar style 4-3, but with an interesting twist: they often give two of their D-linemen - strongside end Red Bryant and NT Brandon Mebane- two-gap responsibility. Seeing the coaches tell an RDE to "two-way" makes me wonder if the Cowboys won't try something similar.
I do have an offensive tidbit in the midst of this defense-heavy report, and it's somewhat surprising. Other than Dez Bryant, the most athletic receiver on day one was LaRon Byrd: he's massive (as tall as L'Damien Washington, but much more thickly muscled), smooth, athletic, and seems to have good change of direction skills for a man his size. Plus, he's a good hands catcher. It remains to be seen why Byrd failed to stand out at any of his career stops thus far, but it's also obvious why both the Cardinals and Cowboys wanted to take a chance on him. When observing his toolkit, it's clear he's playing with power tools; the question is whether or not he consistently keeps them charged...
After a quick special teams session in which the players revisited the punt return drill with which they began the day, some players left the field while other stayed to work closely with teammates or coaches. The defensive line worked on arm-under moves with Leon Lett, and the O-line gathered around Bill Callahan to practice getting their hands on the opponents shoulders - and getting low to gain leverage - at the snap. Jason Garrett threw passes to Dez Bryant, who worked on making contested catches; an assistant would wrap a towel around Bryant's arm and hold on tight, so that Dez could simulate catching with a defender impeding one of his arms:
In a sense, this looked like a second "blue period," a time reserved for special work. The difference is that this period wasn't populated solely by greenhorns; several veterans stayed behind to polish their games. After about five minutes of this quiet work, the final horn sounded, and Garrett announced the end of camp's first practice. In terms of the drills that were run, much of what we saw was old hat; on the other hand, the entire approach to injuries - and the effects that had on the daily schedule - was entirely new.
Variety. It's the spice o' life, I hear...