After an off day, the Cowboys eased into the second phase of 2014's training camp, a three-day stretch that gets us to the end of the week, and a day off before a big weekend that includes the blue-white scrimmage. And it was particularly important to ease into things today because, you may recall, on Saturday during their first padded practice, this young team got geeked up, talked smack and spent a lot of their reserve energy - such that Sunday's practice was a sloppy affair. With the current order of business to build to the scrimmage - which we might consider the training camp's first exam - it was crucial that they approach today's affair with a levelheaded passion.
The first four camp practices were a relative hieroglyph, a cipher that was difficult to decode. What the team was working on each day, other than a general, global download, wasn't always evident. Today, however, the agenda was patently clear: the two-minute offense. Of course, the "two-minute" is a fairly open and capacious category, one that contains many different elements: three-wide sets, an entire package of draw plays, some wide receiver screens and a couple of other interesting wrinkles.
The wrinkle that I found most fascinating - and thrilling - was their use of Lance Dunbar. On some occasions, he lined up in the backfield and motioned out wide, to the edge of the formation. On others, he lined up in the slot. On still others, he was in the backfield, and received one of a variety of screen passes. We have been hearing a lot about how Scott Linehan is going to utilize players like Dunbar in a variety of ways. Today, we got a taste of the vast array of deployments the offensive braintrust might have in mind.
Another interesting play that the team worked on was a version of wide receiver screen in which the wideout would take one step and then cut sharply in the direction of the quarterback, who initially looked the other direction before turning and throwing the ball to him (at him?), whereupon, the receiver would cut sharply upfield, behind the guard and tackle on that side, both of whom had released. In position work, the various groups - receivers, offensive linemen, QBs - worked on this play's component elements, then put them together in the team periods.
As suggested above, we also witnessed a heavy dose of draw plays, with a lot of variety: from shotgun, one-back and two-back sets, between the tackles, and outside, even with a pulling lineman out in front. One of the hallmarks of Jason Garrett's offense has been to call plays against situation and/ or formation, passing out of heavy sets, for instance, or running in clear passing situations. After seeing the cornucopia of options in today's draw package, it appears that Linehan's boys will be well equipped to operate according to a similar philosophy.
On the defensive side (which, of course, also featured material from the "two-minute" section of the playbook), we saw a goodly amount of nickle and dime packages. More interesting was that Rod Marinelli unveiled some of his blitz packages, with corner blitzes and interior blitzes by safeties and linebackers receiving the most airtime. Accordingly, the team worked on blitz and blitz pickup in one-on-one drills, for the first time this camp. Safeties and linebackers worked on inside blitzes with running backs (between a couple of upside-down garbage cans to signify the tight space) and on outside blitzes with the tight end group.
After a first couple of days in which the offensive and defensive units never faced one another, save during the 11-on-11 non-contact walk-throughs, the team has ramped up the competitive periods. Today, they participated in as much 7-on-7 and full team work as I can remember seeing at a Jason Garrett training camp. This may well be the result of today's lessons, as two minute material can't really be run in isolation, since it depends on team-wide communication and all eleven players executing, hustling, and listening. Whatever the reason, there was a lot more "big group" work than we've seen in some time.
I have mentioned in earlier reports that Garrett likes to inject game situations into these final sessions. In the past, that has meant simulated crowd noise (in the form of a volume increase on huge field-level speakers, 35-second clocks and referees. Today, all team periods featured these elements, and the final team period added a new element that we haven't see thus far in camp: the specific game-like scenario. Here, with the focus of the day;s work being the two-minute offense, Garrett offered the following: the offense trailing 23-20 with 1:52 tn the clock and 70 or so yards to go for the tying or winning score. The first two units, led by Brandon Weeden and Caleb Hanie, drove for field goal attempts; the third team's effort was cut short by a Terrance Mitchell interception of Dustin Vaughn.
Jason Garrett has mentioned that, to him, one of the most important - and exciting - aspects of camp is the opportunity for players to square off against the best the team has to offer at an opposite position. Think Mo Claiborne versus Dez Bryant or DeMarcus Lawrence against Tyron Smith; those competitive moments can't help but make Claiborne and Lawrence better players. With this in mind, each practice thus far has featured a brief "best-on-best" session wherein two players go at it with the entire team gathered around them in a circle. Today it was Bruce Carter vs. DeMarco Murray. My take is that the offense won the day.
I spent some time today watching the downroster defensive backs, who are an interesting lot. Unlike, say, defensive line, cornerback is a fairly striated position, with an upper crust and muddy layers below. One of camp's burning questions will be: who will emerge as that "next best" layer? There are several candidates, some of whom were with the team in recent years - guys like B.W. Webb (who was the third corner today) and Sterling Moore. But I kept noticing Terrance Mitchell, Tyler Patmon and, to a lesser degree, Dashaun Phillips. What leapt out at me was the physicality with which they play. Several times, we saw a receiver flying to the ground at the end of a play in 7-on-7, and it was almost always one of the aforementioned young bucks who was the culprit. It will be fascinating to watch how the fight for CB spots four and five plays out. Webb and Moore better watch their backs...
I have mentioned in earlier reports that rookie defensive tackles Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop are doing good work, and have been getting some snaps against higher-level competition as a result. Watching them today, I was struck by how similarly they are built: both are short and squat (the better to gain leverage), with powerful legs and backsides. That they both have numbers in the 60s just furthers their similarity. With that in mind, I want to open up the floor for a nickname for this dynamic duo. The Stumpy Twins? Ken and Stumpy? Hit the comments section and let the permutations flow...
On a day in which rookie DE DeMarcus Lawrence suffered what some fear to be a broken bone in his foot or ankle, I'll conclude with a bit of good news: Anthony Spencer spent the afternoon working with the trainers and the gang of walking wounded, which included Will Smith, Ron Leary, Ben Gardner. Later, number 93 joined Ron Leary to work on the resistance bands, which is always a good indication that a player is ready to return to action. As Todd Archer tweeted, it seems like a week one return is a bit of a stretch for Spence, much less actual participation in camp practices; however, if we go according to historical precedent with the training staff, he could return to the fray much earlier than we have imagined.
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)...