Allow me to open with a quick disclaimer: as I mentioned yesterday, my plan has been to focus on the defense during camp's first two days, while the team is working without pads. As that's the side of the ball where we find the most open questions, I want to get a handle on how things are shaking out as soon as possible. The offense, on the other hand, appears to be pretty steady, with the only questions to reside much further down the roster. So, you'll notice that the bulk of my commentary pertains to the defensive personnel. I'll play catch-up with the offense in the coming days, I promise.
A long-standing joke about Jason Garrett is his use - most would say overuse - of the word "process." In a more global sense, his use of this word goes hand-in-hand with his insistence that his players focus on the task immediately at hand (each day, each drill, each rep) rather than the big picture. But more than this is the plain fact that football IS a process, a long, wearying journey comprised of little steps - often while carrying a large weight.
This was plainly evident during Friday's training camp practice, during which we were treated to many of the same drills that we had witnessed during yesterday's affair: defensive linemen working on getting off at the snap; defensive backs training on breaking down and tackling; linebackers working on assignments and spacing, particularly during motions and shifts. And of course, generating turnovers.
That said, many of these drills included an additional element that built on what they had worked on the previous afternoon. For example, on Thursday, the cornerbacks practiced working opposing receivers to the sideline, where they have little room to operate. Today, they repeated this drill, but added a crucial element: the ball. Today, corners revisited the positioning they worked on yesterday, but then turned to locate and make a play on the ball while trying to wall off the opposing player. In this and numerous other drills today, we saw the day-by-day skills building that Garrett emphasizes when he uses the "P" word.
I know I keep saying this, and that it's probably the case in 32 NFL cities, but this coaching staff is a very vocal group of really good teachers. Because there was fairly sparse attendance today, I was able to overhear almost everything secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. On one drill, in which his cornerbacks worked on pressing receivers at the line, he told his guys that when NFL receivers "walk up" - i.e., are initially non-committal at the line - it presents a great opportunity to step in and get really physical with them and rough them up a bit...when the defensive call is "cover-2," so that the CBs have safety help. He noted that it's crucial that they "cheat" outside, to force the receiver inside, as opposed to outside, along the sideline, where cover-2 is vulnerable.
Throughout this and many other exercises, Henderson was clear, asked his guys questions (If you're saying, "Hey, that's the Socratic Method," you'd be right) and offered them concrete physical demonstrations of what he was talking about. Judging from their body language, his charges are apt pupils; they appear to adore the man and to believe in him and what he tells them. Along these lines, it seems apparent that the defensive linemen feel the same way about Rod Marinelli, who not only has sufficient skins on his wall but also has an obvious rapport with his men. He told reporters that he wants to work his guys hard, so that they are fatigued and under duress, as football is a game that's conducted under duress. This only works if your players are willing to give it all up for you, and his guys seem more than willing to do so.
Speaking of duress: as was the case yesterday, there was only one full-team period, and it was conducted as a brisk walk-through. On Thursday, you may recall, the coaches really pushed the tempo in this period, forcing the players to hustle between plays and introducing some rudimentary situational work, adding a down and distance for each snap. They also introduced "crowd noise," raising up the volume level on a piece of music whenever the offense broke the huddle and approached the line of scrimmage. Today, the musical selection was Motley Crue's "Kickstart My Heart," which apparently simulates crowd noise in a hostile stadium. Personally, I would have chosen Megadeth, but then I'm a purist...
Again, the stretching period immediately following the full team period focused on legs. I found it interesting that the team finished practice with the kind of full-body team stretch that they used to do immediately after the 11-on-11 walk-through in previous camps. Not to beat a dead horse, but it's obvious that the item at the top of the organization's "must do" list this season is "stay healthy." After the last two years' catastrophic series of injuries, I can understand why this is the case.
Another item high on the checklist looks to be improving the tackling in the secondary. Yesterday, I wrote that the defensive backs executed several drills that simulated breaking down and tackling in the open field. Today, they revisited several of these - including one where they break down, make a sudden cut and "tackle" a big inflated ball - and added one wherein they practiced dropping into coverage and then coming up to make the tackle on a receiver who stayed at the line to take in a bubble screen. In addition, they worked at getting off receivers' blocks
One element of practice that was different this afternoon was the special teams drill. Yesterday, Rich Bisaccia had the players work on punt coverage; today, it was kickoff return. As he did last year, Bissacia recruited several other position coaches to help him teach the multiple elements that go into such a complex operation as kick return. During the first special teams period, they broke a kick return up into two groups: the front men, who retreat some fifteen yards at the kick, gather and then block, and the back guys, who gather to form a loose wall of blockers for the return men. These two groups were put together during the second, and final special teams period, which often saw Bisaccia stop and work on technique, timing, spacing or placement with one of the various "levels" of the return team.
In the final practice period, the defense gathered as a full unit for the first time all camp (outside of 11-on-11 walk-through work). The opposing offense was comprised of coaches, with Jason Garrett playing quarterback, and doing a reasonable imitation of Payton Manning, repeatedly calling out "Omaha, Omaha" at the line. On one play, he lofted a pretty ball to Leon Lett, running a crossing pattern, just over the outstretched arms of J.J. Wilcox. Garrett and the 6'6" Lett exploited a noticeable height advantage to get the completion.
For the second day in a row, practice ended with a second "blue period," reserved for down-roster types to receive special instruction. Today, offensive linemen put their arms behind them while their O-line colleagues bumped them forcefully with the same big inflatable balls that the defensive backs "tackled" earlier in the afternoon. The goal was for them to maintain a good base and balance without using their arms or hands. At the same time, the second- and third-team linebackers worked with Matt Eberfluss and Monte Kiffin on line calls, especially when the offense uses motion.
I'll write about this more in the longer practice report, but this final blue period is quickly becoming my favorite part of camp. I'm hoping fervently that the coaching staff will continue to employ it in the coming days, once they move on to padded practice. Fingers crossed...
Stay tuned, loyal readers; I'll have a fuller, more detailed report on the day's action later tonight/ early tomorrow morning (depending on your time zone)...