As soon as the horn sounded to mark the official start of practice, the players and attendant personnel launched into the first item on the day's agenda: a special teams period in which the focus was kickoff returns. They worked intensively on the basic issues: spacing, timing, executing combination blocks. Rich Bisaccia and the other coaches broke the kick return team 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.
It's terribly early, I know, but your starting kick return team is comprised of the following:
- front line: Jeff Heath, Cam Lawrence, James Hanna, Anthony Hitchens, Barry Church
- next level: Kyle Wilber, Gavin Escobar, DeVonte Holloman, Tyler Klutts
- returner and protector: Dwayne Harris (returner); Lance Dunbar (protector)
While the bulk of the team worked on kickoff returns, the quarterbacks and centers worked on the snap/ exchange. Later, Scott Linehan and Wade Wilson spent some time talking to the three quarterbacks who dressed for today's practice about an unknown topic.
Next, the team gathered for its sole 11-on-11 period of the day. As was the case yesterday, it was essentially an uptempo walk-through, without contact but at a pretty pace, and with down-and-distance marked. Here's the sideline view:
One thing these periods do is give us a glimpse of the depth chart. The offensive chart remains a bit murky, with Tony Romo and Ron Leary not playing. On the other hand, the defensive chart is coming into focus. Here are the first two teams (since they have been predominantly in nickel, that's the personnel group I'll use here):
|Position||First Team||Second Team|
|LDE||George Selvie||Tyrone Crawford|
|LDT||Nick Hayden||Terrell McClain|
|RDT||Henry Melton||Ben Bass|
|RDE||Jerome Mincey||DeMarcus Lawrence|
|LB||Justin Durant||DeVonte Holloman|
|LB||Bruce Carter||Anthony Hitchens|
|LCB||Mo Claiborne||Terrance Mitchell|
|SS||Barry Church||Jakar Hamilton|
|FS||J.J. Wilcox||Jeff Heath|
|NCB||Sterling Moore||Sterling Moore|
|RCB||Orlando Scandrick||B. W. Webb|
Also of interest was the offensive line. The starters (Smith, Bernadeau, Frederick, Martin, Free) offer no surprise; however, the second unit was interesting in that we saw Martin take snaps as the second-team center, joining Weems, Nwaneri, Darius Morris and Parnell. When looking at the O-line, most questions are easily answered - with the exception of who will be the back-up center, especially on the game-day roster. In the first two days, we have seen Bernadeau and Martin both work at the pivot; I suspect the team would rather one of them emerge as the best candidate, which will allow them to dress fewer OL on game days. If they cannot pass muster, the team may be obligated to dress a guy like Ronald Patrick, a possibility that inspires nobody other than Patrick and his immediate family.
After this, we saw the same leg-and-lower-core-focused stretching session that we saw yesterday. After working their hamstrings, quads, lower backs and glutes, the players took separate fields to run through the daily pat-and-go session, quickly followed by what Garrett termed the "ball period" in his Friday presser: when the offense quickly runs plays against air at speed, the defensive units work on turnover-generation drills. To see what these are like in detail, go here and scroll down to paragraph eight.
When position drills resumed, we saw defensive tackles working with linebackers to work on timing when running blitzes: the D-linemen would fire off and "occupy" a man, while the LBs hesitated just a split second before running up a specific gap. Next they worked on having one of the 'backers dole out a bit of "sugar," faking a blitz and then peeling off to drop into coverage. By pairing these two exercises, the coaching staff helped ensure that, to opposing O-linemen, both appear to be exactly the same - thus potentially sowing confusion.
I mentioned in my summary that the defensive backs are being drilled fairly extensively in drills that ask them to break down and to tackle. Whether you think the Cowboys are proactive or over-reactive as an organization (I believe they are the latter), it's clear that they want to address what they consider to have been two of 2013's failings: injuries and poor tackling in the secondary - and to address them early and often as a way to drive home their importance.
When working with the defensive backs on a breaking down drill, the secondary coaches told them to "set your angle first" - to set up on the offensive player's shoulder to force him to cut towards, rather than away from, pursuit. The key for the DBs was to avoid over-committing when setting their angle, which makes it easy for the ballcarrier to cut in a direction of his choice. Later, corners worked on closing quickly on bubble screens while safeties ran through a drill that we've seen at the NFL Combine: a coach holds out a ball and moves it in different directions; the player has to backpedal and then "click and close" when the ball's direction changes - while keeping his weight over his feet.
As this was taking place, the linebackers worked on a "stack and shed" drill wherein they squared up to a single blocking sled (intended to signify an offensive linemen trying to get to the second level) and then got off the block to get in position to wrap up a ball carrier on an inside run. Later, they worked on a similar exercise, this time on an outside or off-tackle run; the drill asked them to scrape along the line of scrimmage, getting off a potential block (a teammate with a pad) to get to a ballcarrier on the edge.
The defensive linemen revisited the now infamous "Crawford Drill," in which they weave through four bags to get to a fifth bag, which represents a (conveniently statuesque) quarterback. Here's the drill's namesake player getting a QB bag:
Of course, after I shared my admiration of Martez Wilson's quickness yesterday, he did little to merit continued approval; indeed, Rod Marinelli scolded him for shoddy handwork as he made his way through the bags: "You're not moving your hands, Martez. Use your hands!" Marinelli yelled. On the other hand, Marinelli saw progress from DT Henry Melton, calling out, "Not quite there yet, but I’m starting to see it."
Later, this was compressed; the four bags were tightly bunched, and the D-linemen had to navigate them quickly, swatting each aside and weaving through them. This appeared to be much more challenging, and required a nasty combination of strength and quickness. Soon after, the defensive linemen were broken into two groups - ends and tackles. While the DTs continued work on the bags (although only two this time around), the DEs revisited yesterday's "rush-the-edge (Leon Lett with big arm pads) and-pick-up-a-tennis-ball" drill. Interestingly, Tyrone Crawford worked exclusively with the ends, Ben Bass with the tackles. So, even though questions a-plenty about the D-line remain, there is at least a glimmer of clarity.
At the same time, the safeties embarked upon a drill where two receivers would run patterns with a coach playing "quarterback." The safety had to maintain an equal distance between the two men and then, as the QB feigned a throw to one of the two, close quickly. This is essentially a focus exercise; the player has to employ a soft focus to keep both receivers in his field of vision and then, as soon as the ball is passed, considerably narrow his aperture, focusing on the receiver's numbers.
The defensive line worked on splitting double-teams. The key ingredient here was to avoid over-committing too early. The D-linemen had to hold the double team and then explode through it to the ballcarrier. One development from this drill was that Melton appeared to tweak his knee while holding up a double-team. He was a bit gimpy for a moment and did a squat or two to work it out and continued to practice. As this was happening, LB coach Matt Eberfluss and his staff set up a bunch of upside-down garbage cans so that his charges would work on spacing and gap assignment. The safeties worked on passing a receiver off (to another zone) and closing on a receiver running in a shallower or unoccupied zone.
Next up was the second, briefer special teams period, where Bisaccia and his crew assembled the kick return elements that had been operating on separate fields at the start of practice. It was fascinating watching the coaches implement a very complex operation, with many moving parts. Here, Bisaccia frequently stopped the action to work on details with one of the various "levels" of the return team: technique, timing, spacing or placement. At the same time, the receivers who were likely to play on special teams practiced tackling - tracking and wrapping up - which we must assume are heretofore under-developed skills for wideouts.
This was apparently the part of practice for assembling previous disparate units. The defense, which had worked in discrete position groups all of the short camp (outside of 11-on-11 walk-through work), gathered as a full unit for the first time, facing off against an offensive unit populated by the coaches, with Jason Garrett playing quarterback:
Against this ramshackle offensive unit (Leon Lett was playing wide receiver, for goodness' sake), the defenders implemented all the previous two days' work: passing a receiver into another zone, assignments when the offense uses motion, spacing, get-off, etc.
Soon thereafter, another horn sounded, and the players gathered around Garrett in the middle of the field, then took their positions for a final team stretch - the exact routine that was previously scheduled after the first team period in earlier camps. After this, we were treated to one of Camp 2014's innovations: the second "blue period," during which down-roster types to receive special instruction. Today, offensive linemen worked to maintain a good base and balance without using their arms: their O-line colleagues bumped them forcefully with inflatable balls while the held their arms behind them. They also practiced firing out low to hit a blocking dummy with their inside shoulders.
Yesterday, Matt Eberfluss took a moment to work with current starting MLB Justin Durant on line calls. Today, he worked with the second- and third-team linebackers on similar material. He and other coaches went in motion, and tested the young 'backers ability to make adjustments. One of the coaches who repeatedly went in motion (the de facto H-back) was Monte Kiffin. Needless to say, he's not quite as agile or spry as Jason Witten.
After only two practices, this blue period has quickly become my favorite moment of each camp practice - not because it signals the end of the practice, but because of its idyllic power: These are quiet moments after a storm, which take place as the low, late-afternoon light produces long shadows and bounces its rays off all the players' helmets. It's simple, and quiet and beautiful. I'm hoping that it continues to be a defining characteristic of this year's Oxnard sojourn.
And, finally, a tidbit of good news: Anthony Spencer spent some time working on the resistance bands this afternoon. Typically, resistance work signals a player's imminent return to practice: the training staff had judged that he's fit enough to work back into playing shape. I don't know whether this pertains to Spencer as well, but the fact that somebody feels he's strong enough to do resistance work can't be anything but good news.