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Cowboys Training Camp Report, Practice Number Four: Picking Up Where We Left Off

On Sunday, the Cowboys continued their early camp install, adding further refinements to the basic skills lessons that characterized the first three days' practices. Oh, and a few names were added to the injury list...

The player of the day Sunday was Orlando Scandrick
The player of the day Sunday was Orlando Scandrick

The opening special teams period saw Rich Bisaccia and his assistants putting the team through their kickoff coverage and return paces. As I mentioned in my summary, it was interesting to see the way they have (quickly) installed the rudiments of this particular part of the game. On Friday, you may recall, the coaches divided the team up into two groups - the front line and the back men - and had each on a separate field. During that day's second special teams session, they brought the two halves together, and ran the whole complex affair, often stopping and working on one aspect (the way the front unit faded back and set up for their blocks, for example).

Today, they picked up where they left off on Friday, with both "halves" of the KO return squad on the same field, running the whole shebang. This was after they had worked on kickoff coverage for the first time in an afternoon practice - but had surely gone over it in depth during Saturday's morning walk-through, which focused exclusively on Special Teams. It's a real pleasure watching Bisaccia operate; he has the ability to diagnose problems from amidst chaos (I certainly cannot take in or understand a given kick return until I watch it several times, from multiple angles), and make quick corrections. It's no wonder that his "teams" units were so highly ranked last season.

This "picking up where we left off" serves as a metaphor for the entire day's work. In a sense, we must consider the first four camp practices a discrete unit, one that culminated in Sunday afternoon's session. And, over the four day's work, we saw what is likely to equate to an "install" phase, wherein the players have ingested the rudiments of all the various special teams phases, base offense and, since the base offense often features three-wide formations, the base and nickel defenses. In addition, a lot of philosophical downloading has taken place: the defense starts each day with turnover drills (what Garrett termed the "ball period") and has worked exhaustively on breaking down and tackling; the players are stretching much more rigorously, etc. Day four of what I'll term Install 2014, then, featured continued development of these essential schematic considerations, skills and philosophies.

After the opening special teams period, the Cowboys have their first "team period," which is little more than a glorified walk-though, an opportunity for players to put classroom teaching into their bodies via physical reps. On Sunday, this period was of particular import, given the absence of a morning walk-through session, which is typically when that mind-to-body conversion takes root. And that absence showed: two of the first three plays were botched, with the coaches insisting that they be repeated.

During this session, Dallas ran plays from a wide variety of formations. One I noticed in particular (and one we saw in later work) was 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends), but with one TE in the backfield and the quarterback under center, so that it looked a lot like 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end). But this was only one of many personnel groupings and formations the Cowboys deployed on the day; we were treated to three- and four-receiver sets, two-tight-end sets, with TEs bunched in or split out wide, and quarterbacks both in shotgun and under center.

In particular, I noted that Gavin Escobar seemed to be in a different place every play; Linehan and crew clearly want to find a place to exploit his length and soft hands. And with good reason; later in the practice, he was being covered by Bruce Carter and Brandon Weeded tossed a high pass that Escobar leapt up to snag at a point where Carter had no chance to make a play: Escobar skillfully wedged his big body between Carter and the ball. If he's able to do that to Carter, think what fear he's capable of striking into the hearts of 5'9" defensive backs.

Another key piece of the day's work was on what the coaches were calling "slider screens": screen passes to either running backs or tight ends who lined up in the aforementioned "21" look. These were of two varieties: a play-action screen in which the QB would fake a handoff to the running back, who would then appear to block before releasing for the screen, and a misdirection screen wherein, after the same play-action, the QB would spin in the other direction and hit the releasing tight end. Remember that this set had QBs under center - a better formation from which to sell play-action.

After covering the day's playsheet at half speed, the team jogged around a goal post and commenced the extensive, lower-body-and-core focused stretching session that has become one of the hallmarks of this year's camp. This, as usual, was followed by the pat-and-go, where one line of receivers and another of backs and tight ends run straight downfield and catch high arcing passes. The defensive back seven does the same, with the exception that they include a backpedal to mimic their actual on-field movement. Think of it as the same principle, but from a coverage perspective.

As this was happening, the offensive line worked with a couple members of the training staff on an upper-body stretch, with particular focus on the neck, shoulders and hips:


This addition to the full team lower-body stretch made sense, considering that they were preparing for some physical position group work in which their upper bodies would get extensive, and violent, use. And, indeed, once the horn sounded, they got to work extending the previous day's lessons. Sunday's goal was basic: open a running lane between the strongside guard and tackle. This required that the tackle drive his man to the outside while the guard capture this opponent's outside shoulder so that he could drive him inside. Next, we saw the same principle applied to the weakside center-guard hole:


And, sure enough, we saw a heavy dose of these basic interior runs in the next full team period.

Next, Bill Callahan took the interior O-linemen and they worked on something we had seen already this camp, and saw a lot of last year as well: they double-team a D-lineman until he's secured, then one OL peels off to block a second-level player. As they were doing this, Frank Pollack and Mike Pope joined forces with the offensive tackles and tight ends for some similar work, specifically on defensive ends and outside linebackers. As with the kickoff return, they later joined these teaching units together, during the full team period's 11-on-11 work.

Speaking of the offensive line, Ron Leary was on the field on Sunday in helmet and shoulder pads, but wearing shorts. He spent the day working with the trainers on the sidelines, which historically suggests that he's close to returning to action. While he may not be a "full go" on Tuesday - that will happen only after we see him on the bands - I'd expect to see him practicing some time late next week.  On the other hand, Darius Morris, who had been getting second-team snaps in Leary's absence, didn't dress on Sunday, and arrived at the scene with a noticeable limp - never a good scenario for a young, UDFA type.

And that's not the extent of the injury news. Terrell McClain walked off the field with trainers, and had to get on a cart for the trip from the trainer's tent. It looked like his right foot or ankle. Soon thereafter, he was joined by Bruce Carter, who tweaked something in one-on-one pass coverage drills with the running backs, Jeff Heath, who hurt his right wrist, and DeVonte Holloman, who got dehydrated. Thankfully, Carter and Heath soon rejoined the fray after being checked out by the medical staff. This in addition to Ben Gardner and Will Smith, who suffered shoulder and groin injuries, respectively, on Saturday.

As the O-line was put through their paces, the defense revisited a camp staple from last year: the pursuit drill, an exercise steeped in bitter irony. As I mentioned above, the coaches had to ask their charges to repeat plays several times. As the third-team defense was working on a the drill, Tyler Patmon failed to run all the way to the end zone, which is a critical aspect of the exercise. As a penalty, the coaches made them do it again - and that was when Matt Johnson injured a hamstring. Again. Nasty bit of luck, that.

As quarterbacks worked with running backs on basic handoffs (for inside runs; this correlated nicely to the blocking work in which the O-line engaged), the receivers worked on back shoulder fades: the "corner" (a member of the receiver group) forces the receiver to the sideline and, as the ball is thrown, the receiver stops, perhaps pushing off a wee bit, and reaches high for the catch. When done properly, as many commentators have noted, this is an impossible play to defend - and thus a good one on which to work extensively.

This finished, the running backs joined the tight ends and quarterbacks to run through pass patterns against air. The majority of these were shallow routes, a great many of them of the "between the hashes" variety. As might be expected, these were revisited in later one-on-one passing drills, as backs squared off against linebackers and tight ends against safeties. Here's Ryan Willams with a nice grab in that one-on-one session:


And, finally, they were put to practical use in the final team period - and were particularly effective in three- and four-receiver sets, which induced linebackers to take deep drops to help cover deeper zones, thus leaving plenty of space for the likes of Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle to make receptions (and then gain further yardage) in cleared-out underneath zones. Here's an example of what I'm talking about, with DeMarco Murray. Notice the space he has to operate, and the fact that there are no receivers (nor their defenders) in the shot:


On the other field, we were introduced to a new exercise: defensive line coach Leon Lett donned a pair of big blue padded arms and worked with his guys on hand-fighting. There didn't appear to be a concrete goal to this exercise, other than to develop hand reaction speed, as boxers do with the small bag. Later on, we saw a more concrete application, during the final "blue period," as Lett again put on the arm pads to work with three defensive ends - George Selvie, Caesar Rayford and Martez Wilson - on rip moves. The key here was to swat away the offensive tackle's hand with the inside hand and then give his elbow a shove with the outside hand to clear the way for the "rip," again with the inside hand. And good teaching was in effect: they started slowly, working at each of the three steps, then worked up to half speed before finally trying out the combo at something a bit faster than three-quarter speed. Such intimate teaching is just another reason the final blue period has quickly become my favorite part of the practice day.

Speaking of building skills: the next period witnessed the return of special teams, with the field goal unit up first. You may recall that, on Friday, Bisaccia had his men focus on blocking assignment and getting off a clean snap, such that there was no kicking. Today, they added the missing element, and Automatic Dan Bailey knocked five of six kicks through uprights, missing his last, longest one, a 51-yarder. After this, the team practiced punting from deep in their own territory, switching end zones to practice punting both with and against the wind.

And the coup de grace: the final team period. Typically, this is when the coaches will challenge their players by placing them in pressurized game situations. And it appears they are building towards this as well. After citing down and distance and introducing increased sound levels as the offense approached the ball in previous team periods, today, they added a third element: a 35-second time clock that began to tick as soon as the previous play was deemed to be "over" ( a slippery determination in the absence of tackling). The players responded to this well, getting most plays snapped with double-digits remaining. A personal highlight was watching big, squat Ken Bishop fly down the line in pursuit of Joseph Randle. There was no way he was going to catch the fleet runner, but Bishop never let his foot off the gas. That's the kind of hustle we like, rook!

This concluded, several players took advantage of a fifteen minute "blue period" I already mentioned the work Lett did with some of his defensive ends. On the other field, Bill Callahan worked with a group of O-linemen on extending their bodies to take an opponents legs out from underneath him. Two at a time fired out, thrusting themselves forward to clip a large pad that was placed on a thick mat, to prevent injury. A small group fielded punts, and a handful of defensive linemen worked quietly with Marinelli on getting inside an offensive lineman's arms to his chest, thus making him easier to direct.

At the stroke of 6:00, a horn sounded, signalling the official, and definitive, end of practice. The Cowboys now enjoy a rest day, and will resume two-a-days on Tuesday. Of course, I'll be there to bring you every detail that my aging eyes can see!

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