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Cowboys Training Camp Report, Practice Number Five: Dallas, We Are Fully Situational

A detailed review of the happenings from the Cowboys fifth training camp practice, which predominately featured work on end-of half/ two-minute scenarios and packages.

Brandon Weeden played well in Tony Romo's absence
Brandon Weeden played well in Tony Romo's absence
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As I mentioned in my earlier practice summary, the most recent iteration of training camp thus far has been a difficult one get a firm grasp on. Typically, it is readily apparent what the team has decided to work on that day, be it goal line, third down, or red zone. In the first four practices of Camp 2014, however, each day's agenda has defied easy interpretation; we have seen a gallimaufry of formations and alignments, which have been difficult to categorize as anything other than "base install" or "general overview."

Today, this was not the case, It was readily apparent from the get-go that the headline for the afternoon's work would be two-minute situations and a close cousin, the end-of-half hurry-up offense. Somehow, knowing early what the topic of the day will be allows the position group work to come into sharper focus. And, indeed - and as you'll see below - we were treated to a series of exercises that asked players to develop skills that pertained to or correlated neatly with the various elements of the extensive two-minute chapter in the team's playbook.

As is the norm, the Cowboys kicked things off with special teams. As, as befits that weak pun, kickoff and kickoff coverage were on the docket. After initially working on the component parts of kick teams, and then suturing them together, but stopping to work the elements separately, the team has now advanced to the point where they can run the entire shebang without stopping, receiving feedback after each full rep. This slow, steady solidification of these units should continue up to the first preseason game. Soon enough, we'll begin to track the starters and/ or key contributors on the various special teams units, as they will have much to tell us about who will and won't make this roster.

It was at the tail end of this period that new middle 'backer Rolando McClain left the field with members of the training staff. The initial reports, of an ankle injury, elicited much hand-wringing from Cowboys Nation. But, it appears he was confused with his namesake, Terrell McClain. In actuality, Rolando was suffering from a stomach virus, a bit of news that offered only a small modicum of relief, as it came hard upon the news that rookie DE DeMarcus Lawrence will require foot surgery, which will keep him out for an estimated 8-12 weeks.

After the opening special teams session, the team gathered on the far field for an 11-on-11 walk-through. That's when we were first able to witness some interesting snippets from Linehan's playbook. A couple of things from this work jumped out immediately. The first was that nearly every play utilized 11 personnel (one RB, one TE), with the running back, Lance Dunbar in particular, deployed in multiple ways. On more than one occasion, a running back would line up in the backfield and then motion out wide, to the end of the formation:


From there, we saw them run patterns or, on several occasions, stand and turn to receive the rudiments of a bubble screen, which functioned essentially as a handoff into space.

Along the same lines, the Cowboys showed a similar screen, but to receiver split wide. Like the running back in the play above, the WR would take one step forward and then cut sharply in the direction of the quarterback, who initially looked the other direction before turning and throwing the ball to (or at) the WR, Once he made the reception, the receiver would cut sharply upfield, behind the guard and tackle on that side, both of whom had released. Sure enough, in later position group work, we saw wideouts working on this pattern, and the OL work on blocking and releasing on screens.

The first 11-on-11 period also witnessed Dunbar (and, a couple of times, Randle) line up in the slot. The fascinating thing was that Dunbar aligned in such a way with the first, second and third teams. Might this have been a coincidence, or a harbinger of a special "Dunbar slot package?" And, speaking of harbingers, I noticed that B.W. Webb blitzed a couple of times from his slot corner position during this first team period. And, as it turned out, the defensive coaches unveiled a couple pages from the blitz package, not only corner blitzes but some interior linebacker blitzes as well.

After the extended lower-body stretching and pat-n-go session, the various position groups joined their respective coaches on different areas on the field for position group work. The running backs and tight ends worked on running a short hitch, catching the ball and then turning and running upfield through traffic (represented by assistants with pads). And in the final team period, I saw Jordan Najvar run this exact pattern, turn and burst upfield through two defenders. As this was happening, the receivers ran through permutations of the routes I described above.

Meanwhile, the interior offensive linemen were working on getting immediately to their opponent's inside shoulder, but with their bodies rather than their hands. Next, they practiced "forearm shivers," which are designed to freeze a charging opponent in his tracks. By now, the tight ends had joined the tackles. On the other field, the linebacking corps worked on a "stack and shed" drill using a blocking sled, the cornerbacks CBs worked on making contested interceptions, trying to grab passes with an assistant holding a pad pushing on them. The defensive ends revisited the "dip and bend" drill in which they "run the arc" against a coach wearing the big blue padded arms, and try to pick up a tennis ball lying where the quarterback would be positioned.

As this was happening, one of those selfsame linemen, Anthony Spencer, and a gang of walking wounded - including Will Smith, Ron Leary, Ben Gardner - was working with the trainers, running the short length of the field. Later, number 93 joined 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 adhere to historical precedent with the training staff, number 93 could return to the fray much earlier than we have imagined.

Soon thereafter, the linebackers and safeties come over to the near field to work with the tight ends and running backs on blitz and blitz pickup, an exercise that generated some nice battles. A few observations: DeMarco Murray was a beast, repeatedly stopping onrushing blitzers in their tracks. He's excellent at marinating his balance and base as he moves, and gets his hands right to his opponent's chest. On the other hand, Ryan Williams has a ways to go as a pass blocker if he is to make this roster. There were lots of big hits, perhaps none louder than the smack when Anthony Hitchens took his turn against Joseph Randle. And, finally, Jordan Najvar was simply no match for Kyle Wilber's quickness - or for a Joe Windsor's spin move.

On the other field, receivers and corners faced off, providing some interesting battles. I wrote about the downroster corners in my practice summary, pointing out that they are playing a physical game and preparing to push a couple of young vets from the roster. However, they had their hands full with the second- and third-team receivers, several of whom have stood out. Many of those, strangely, are guys who opened camp in the "afterthought" category: Jamar Newsome (who was on the practice squad for part of last year); LaRon Byrd, and Dezmon Briscoe. While much of the pre-camp hype was about L'Damian Washington and Chris Boyd, these NFL journeymen are standing out.

Next up was the second full team period, with the offense and defense squaring off in 11-on-11. It was here that he offensive coaches' playsheet featured numerous plays from 11 personnel. To shake things up, they did a lot of mixing and matching with that personnel, lining up receivers at multiple WR positions, and, for good measure, unveiled a variety pack of draw plays: from shotgun, from one-back and two-back sets, run outside or between the tackles, even with a pulling lineman out in front.

Given that this was specifically the two-minute package, the entire operation - coaches, staff, players, chain gang - were really trying to hustle in and out of each play. With this in mind, the communication between the players consisted largely of single words or hand signals. Of course, not everything was smooth sailing; at one point, there was some substitution confusion on the offensive sideline, and Garrett disgustedly told them to "get in the huddle" - as strong a signal of failure as there is in a two-minute situation.

A couple of thoughts here: for whatever reason (they wanted to practice subbing in and out under the duress of the two-minute situation?), the team mixed and matched a lot of defensive players. At one point, for example, I saw Caesar Rayford playing three-tech DT with the third team. And, I'll reiterate what I wrote in an earlier report: Caleb Hanie is the best third-team quarterback this team has has in camp in years, probably since Romo's rookie season. On one play, he escaped pressure, rolled to his right and made a nice throw under pressure to Dwayne Harris for a sizeable gain. I can't recall ever seeing Stephen McGee make a play like that...

This was followed by the second special teams period, during which they attempted field goals (Automatic Dan went 6-6), following that up by punt return (although they appeared to work on punt block; they certainly weren't setting up a return). Interestingly, they alternated Gavin Escobar and Tyrone Crawford in the middle of the "punt block" unit. Both are long, athletic players - perhaps their purpose is to get up and swat away an errant boot? Then they swapped and worked on punting and punt coverage.

Next, instead of another position group period, the Cowboys scheduled a lengthy 7-on-7 session (which, of course, is a misnomer, since its typically 5-on-5). The highlight of this session was Tyler Patmon's nice play on a deep ball intended for Jamar Newsome along the left sideline. Keeping his body between Newsome and the ball, Patmon was able to bat it away easily, earning cheers from the fans and his defensive teammates.

While the handsome, skinny guys were running around passing and catching the ball, the big uglies were gathered in a circle, going head-to-head on pass rush drills. It was during this session that rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence injured his foot, as he was going up against Tyron Smith. It was difficult to determine exactly what happened, but Lawrence ended up on the ground and came up touching his foot or ankle. Then, when he tired to stand on it, it was clear that the injury was more than one of those in-the-throes tweaks. Indeed, early reports indicate that he has a broken bone in his foot that will require surgery, putting him out for 8-12 weeks.

The penultimate item on the daily schedule was the full team period. As I have mentioned in earlier reports, Garrett wants to use these culminating sessions to prepare his charges for game situations and conditions. Thus far, this has meant simulating crowd noise (in the form of a volume increase on huge field-level speakers), 35-second clocks and the inclusion of referees. Today, all team periods featured these elements; this final period added a new element: the scoreboard, replete with game clock. Along with this came a nail-biting scenario: the offense takes over, trailing 23-20 with 1:52 on the clock and 70 or so yards from the winning score.

The first unit, led by Brandon Weeden drove for a tying Dan Bailey field goal (on a drive abetted by a generous Garrett first down call on a third and six play); the next drive ended on a Ben Malena fumble (pity; it came after a nice cutback run in which he showed impressive quickness). Weeden, who has struggled a bit with accuracy at times in camp, acquitted himself marvelously, going 6-8 - and one of those incompletions narrowly missing being a spectacular Dez Bryant one-handed touchdown grab.

As this final team period wore on, it was once again clear that the downroster defenders are better (at least at this point in camp) than the second- and third-team offensive guys. And this gap widens the further down we go; the third team offense is outclassed by the third stringers on the other side of the ball. As if to prove my point, the session ended with a Terrance Mitchell pick of Caleb Hanie.

The horn sounded and we were treated - and I mean treated! - to the "blue period" that closes out every practice. Its during these that the coaching staff breaks out material from deep in their respective bags of tricks. Frank Pollack had his O-linemen stand on inflatable donuts (officially: leverage discs) that forced them to get low in their stances as other OL tossed a heavy medicine ball to them:


Pollack kept telling them "squeeze your knees and arch your back" to reinforce proper pass blocking form. As this was happening, tight ends coach Mike Pope broke out a real dozy: a concentration drill in which shirtless TEs caught passes while being doused with buckets of ice water. Curious? Here's the video (warm thanks to BTBer Yuma Cactus for the video).

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