Wednesday's practice offered lots of material from yesterday's focused work on the two-minute drill: a preponderance of 11 (three wide receivers) and s11 (same, but with the quarterback in shotgun) personnel. The key difference was that yesterday's material was subjected to a specific in-game situation: the ends of halves. When you consider two-minute offense, however, there is clearly a good deal of overlap with the regular passing and third down packages, which is what we saw on the field today.
That said, the team introduced a couple of new wrinkles. They used more pre-snap motion than I had seen thus far in camp, and offered a package of two-back sets, wherein one of the two would usually motion out to the slot. What was interesting was that this elusive motioner was different from play to play; we saw players as varied as Tyler Klutts and Cole Beasley start in the backfield and then move into the slot. Once or twice, Jason Witten motioned from the slot back into the backfield.
In addition, we saw the introduction of red zone work. You may recall that, in last year's camp, after the Cowboys struggled to convert drives into touchdowns in 2012, one of the primary focal points was the red zone offense. Indeed, the extra work paid off; the Cowboys enjoyed greatly improved red zone performance. Today we saw them break out a series of passing plays designed to push the ball deep into the red zone (or, better, into the end zone), presumably with the thought that its difficult to work slowly through the red zone, and better to try to score from from the 20-25 yard lines.
We saw them put this red zone work into (heated) practice during the final team period, when each unit got the ball just outside the 20 and tried to work it in for a score. In the most productive of these drives, the first team mixed up runs to Murray and passes to Witten and Dez to get a score, which came on a short slant to number 88 on a third and goal. The drive began on a much-disputed holding call on J.J. Wilcox, who was matched up against The Senator. The second team was less successful, and was held to a field goal attempt.
All of this speaks to the increased competition that is beginning to be one of Oxnard 2014's hallmarks. Yesterday, I noted that the team scheduled a longer-than-normal competitive period, during which we were treated to 7-on-7 one one end of the field and one-on-one pass rush drills on the other. This was no one-day anomaly; rather, as the team has settled in to padded practices, extended one-on-one competition seems to have become a regular part of the schedule. And yesterday, the competition was heated, as befits a young team with so many roster spots up for grabs.
After the defensive backs pushed the receivers around a bit during yesterday's 7-on-7 work, it seemed as if the wideouts were determined to give them a little back today. Watching them, it made me think of what the position group meeting looked like: "we are NOT going to let those *&%$^ push us around again! Let show them we can be just as physical as they can." And, in rapid succession, Dez caught a ball over Claiborne on the sideline, Devin Street jacked Dashaun Phillips on a nice slant, and Chris Boyd lowered his shoulder on Tyler Patmon. It will be interesting to see whether the CBs offer a punishing riposte during tomorrow's action.
Today's one-play "best-on-best" session featured Terrance Williams versus Mo Claiborne. Williams tried to shake him on a double move, but Claiborne played tight coverage and closed as Williams made an in cut, making a nice play on the ball just as it arrived, to the delight of his defensive teammates. Williams got up gingerly at the end of the play and appeared to be a bit gimpy - although he quickly recovered, as he seemed fully operational in later drills.
In one of those, Claiborne and Williams again locked horns, with Claiborne making a nice play, keeping his body between Williams and an underthrown Romo pass, then high-pointing the ball and making a nice return. The two tangled once again in the later 7-on 7 session, with less happy-making results. Both went up to catch/ defend a back shoulder throw to Williams, and Claiborne appeared to come down awkwardly, apparently tweaking his right knee. He reported after practice that he thinks its just tendinitis, but we await the medical reports for certainty.
The second full team period started on a physical note, as the day's playsheet featured five consecutive runs before the quarterbacks began to sling the ball around. This necessarily gave the day, which largely featured passing plays, a brutish kickoff. And the defensive guys were up to the task. Although the offense popped a couple of nice runs on the day - the best being a DeMarco Murray burst up the middle and a nifty Lance Dunbar run off left tackle - they did a solid job, especially on the perimeter, where they had been yielding the edge too frequently early in camp.
The defensive coaches continue to mix and match personnel, which makes sense considering that so very few positions are secure, especially in the defensive front seven. For example, in the above team period, DeVonte Holloman and Anthony Hitchens received an opportunity to take snaps with the first team defense. And, in DeMarcus Lawrence's absence, the Cowboys are giving other guys a tryout; both Joe Windsor and Kyle Wilber took reps at right defensive end during the competitive period. The good news? Wilber held his own against Tyron Smith; indeed, an argument can be made that he's had more success against Smith than any other player in camp.
During the same pass rush drills, it was nice to see some progress by the defensive line in general. This is coming at a gentle pace, but we're seeing some nice gains. In general, I thought the interior guys did a better job getting leverage and driving their opponents into the backfield - and this was against guards and centers who were doing a much better job getting low and using their hands. The most positive development, however was seeing Caesar Rayford make some nice plays. My impression in early camp practices was that he was long and lean but a bit stiff and too top-heavy, both detrimental qualities during line play. But today, he made several nice moves that would likley have generated pressure.
And, to conclude: yesterday, you may recall, tight ends coach Mike Pope had his charges execute what has since been labeled the "Chippendale's drill": a concentration drill wherein the shirtless players focused on catching the ball while Pope doused them with buckets of ice water. Today, he added a couple more peculiar drills to his lumpen toolbag: first, he fired passes at them while they ran to and fro with bags over their heads (the bags were see-through but significantly reduced visibility). Later, he had them take turns carrying each other back and forth for 10-yard intervals. Pope was widely hailed as a good coaching "get" when he was added to the staff; the old maestro's work with the TEs has quickly become required end-of-practice viewing.
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)...