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Cowboys Training Camp Report, Practice Number Six: Getting In The (Red) Zone

A detailed review of the happenings from the Cowboys fifth training camp practice, during which we saw further work on 11 personnel and a review of the playbook's "red zone" section.

Double D was coaching his guys hard in Oxnard on Wednesday.
Double D was coaching his guys hard in Oxnard on Wednesday.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Your Beloved 'Boys once again opened practice with a special teams period focused on kickoff and kick return, which has been the staple study of the recent opening teams sessions. One reason for this, I assume, is that the pace of these particular aspects of play lend themselves more to a walk-through pace. Punt return, for instance, depends on sprinting downfield and handfighting at speed, whether as a gunner or as an interior coverage man. Kickoff, on the other hand, is about precise positioning and spacing, which can be worked on quite handily at a walk-through pace, which is a necessity for any work done before the team embarks upon the lengthy lower-body stretching session that marks the commencement each day's "real" work.

Rich Bisaccia and the special teams staff are still sifting through all the myriad possibilities for his various teams lineups. For now, the major players on the kickoff coverage unit are Orlando Scandrick, Sterling Moore, Lance Dunbar, Cam Lawrence, J. J. Wilcox, James Hanna, Anthony Hitchens, Terrance Williams, DeVonte Holloman, Dwayne Harris, Barry Church, Jeff Heath and Kyle Wilber. If we add in "Automatic Dan" Bailey, that's 15 players who are on the loosely-conceived "first team." This makes me wonder if several of these guys are either/ or combinations. For example, will they use all three safeties, or does it depend on who secures the starting positions (i.e., is one spot a Wilcox vs. Heath affair)?

While this was being done, Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack instructed the O-linemen on the nuances of pulling: taking one step back to open up (while maintaining a good base) and then firing out, just outside the outside man, which was represented in today's exercise by a small orange cone. As with the special teams work, this was done at lower speed to preserve the O-linemen's big, ugly hamstrings.

After close to 15 minutes for this work, the horn blew, and the team gathered for the 11-on-11 walk-through. As is almost always the case, this work offered a preview of the day's general overview: a lot of 11 (three wide receivers) and s11 (same, but in shotgun) personnel. We also saw a decent percentage of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end), with the capability of morphing into an "11" or "s11" set via motion. A varied group of players started in the backfield and then moved into the slot pre-snap. Watching this, it felt like an adjunct to yesterday's material, wherein a single back often motioned out wide or to the slot.

A lot of you have been asking about J.C. Copeland, the bruising LSU fullback who, it was hoped, would distinguish himself once the pads came on. I'm sorry to report that this has not been the case, as he's struggled in blitz pickup whenever I've had him in my sights, particularly in the passing game. Today, he allowed an oncoming blitzer to run right by him, drawing the ire of RB coach Gary Brown. To add injury to insult, he was later dinged, and had to leave the field with team trainers. In the battle for the fullback spot (which might in itself be a chimera), the early camp returns have Tyler Clutts carving out a wide lead.

After the lower-body stretch (which lasts about ten minutes), pat-n-go and defensive pursuit drills that stand as an official prequel to practice, the team divvied up and headed to their respective areas of the field for position group work. On the near field, the running backs and tight ends worked on holding onto the ball when running through traffic, which was represented by a gauntlet of assistants with pads who wold push and hit the ballcarriers. We have seen the defense work daily on taking the ball away; now, the offense is starting to incorporate more ball security drills into their work.

While they did this, receivers worked on running crisp out routes, with cones set up on the field to help them - one at the start and one where they needed to make their cut. Several assistants fired quick outs to the wideouts after they cut off of the second cone. The running backs then worked on the rope ladder, which forces them to employ quick footwork and keep their knees high. The tight ends joined the offensive tackles to work on two-man blocking schemes.

Next up for the receivers was work on releasing from press coverage when the defense is in Cover-2. Receivers coach Derek Dooley reminded them that corners in such a situation will try to use outside leverage to induce receivers to go inside, where the scheme is less vulnerable. He showed them ways to exploit them inside and how to take a sharp inside step and then cut outside of them when they overreact to the first step:


Next, he showed them how to use a subtle hand motion to disengage from a defender who is running alongside on a fly or seam route and using a kind of arm bar to hem the receiver in. The key, Dooley told them, is to sway the defender's arm away with a tight, circular motion; LaRon Byrd made too big (and too obvious) a motion, and Dooley corrected him. On the far end of the field, QBs and RBs were working on outside pitches, focusing on timing and distance. This seemed to go hand in hand with the earlier O-line work on pulling for outside runs. And, sure enough, during the team periods, the preponderance of runs we did see targeted the edge.

Once these exercises were completed, the offensive skill players gathered for passing drills against air. The coaching staff set them up just outside the 20-yard line, on the outskirts of the red zone. This made sense once they began to run the plays, as many of them seemed designed to get the ball in or near the end zone. Given the increasing difficulty of scoring the closer one gets to the goal line, having a set of plays like this in one's arsenal makes a good deal of sense. Because they were going against air, it was interesting to watch the guys who were assigned to block on a given play. Once, Dallas Walker lined up just inside Jordan Najvar, who was flexed out left. At the snap, Walker merely took a step forward, as Walker ran a pattern in the flat.

What I found most interesting was listening to the coach who would shout out the coverage they were facing. For example, a coach would tell them, "outside leverage, cover one," and all involved were expected to adjust their routes accordingly. Football players are asked to process a great deal of information between the time they leave the huddle and the ball is snapped. Seeing the coaching staff create a situation in which their players could practice this complex processing was fascinating. I'd bet this is a major point of the film session during which they break down and make corrections to the day's practice.

At about the one hour mark, the various position groups scattered and regrouped for the competitive period. Today, this was the offensive line and running backs versus defensive linemen (on, you guessed it, running plays); receivers versus corners; and tight ends versus linebackers and safeties. Each group had its own quarterback; Weeden and Romo worked with the receivers; Caleb Hanie found himself with the big uglies; Dustin Vaughn threw passes to his tight ends.

I spent this period watching the receivers and cornerbacks do battle. In my practice summary, I mentioned that, after being manhandled a bit yesterday, the wideouts seemed determined to give the fiesty downroster corners a little payback today. In back-to-back plays, Devin Street pushed Tyler Patmon down and Chris Boyd lowered his shoulder on Dashaun Phillips. This after Dez Bryant inspired them by making a spectacular leaping grab over Mo Claiborne, who had tight coverage. Later, Terrance Williams shed Orlando Scandrick for a nice reception:


Physical CB vs. WR confrontations continued in the daily "best-on-best" unit, which pitted Terrance Williams against Claiborne, who once again had good coverage, this time swatting the ball away as he and Williams fell to the ground. Later, the full team period came to a crashing conclusion on a Joseph Randle run to the sideline, where he was met by Patmon. And smack talking ensued.

This brought us to the second special teams period where, instead of working on field goals, Bisaccia and Co., broke the seal on the "specials" envelope that had been hidden in his safe, revealing a playsheet filled with fake field goals. As they did when initially practicing regular field goals, the team began by working on blocking, assignment and spacing, such that they snapped the ball but didn't run the play. Eventually, they worked on a couple of "holder sweeps," thus offering us a glimpse of Chris Jones running to daylight.

After this, they moved to punt coverage, which was executed at higher speeds than it had been in previous practiced. As a way to deal with this sped, Bisaccia broke the coverage into discrete units, working first with the gunner on one side, then the interior three on that side, then doing the same on the other side, making corrections to each unit. As with the kickoff team, this work afforded us a glimpse at the current starters:

  • Punt coverage (only have ten): Harris, Hitchens, Hanna, Sterling Moore, Ladoceur, Cam Lawrence, Holoman, Dunbar, Heath, Jones/ Mandell
  • Punt return: Claiborne, Dunbar, Wilcox, Heath, Crawford, Wilber, C. Lawrence, Hitchens, Scandrick, S. Moore

Looking at all three teams units that practiced today offers a good deal of clarity about the "core" special teams guys. As of today, Moore, Dunbar, C. Lawrence, Hitchens, Heath, and Wilber are on all three units, and Scandrick, Wilcox, Hana, Holloman and Dwayne Harris are on two of them. This will be interesting to track as we move through the preseason and the roster begins to solidify. In particular, I'll be watching the teams units closely in the final preseason game, as we sit on the precipice of final cut-downs.

Next up was a second, more demanding competitive period. Now, there were only two groups: skill positions in 7-on-7 and big uglies in the trenches. I chose to watch the latter. A couple of observations: the second- and third-team offensive lines, both of whom struggled early in camp, have both improved a great deal since I last watched the big men in the pit. In particular guys like Andre Cureton and Brian Clarke did a much better job anchoring and keeping their balance. As a consequence, they didn't get juked; instead, they and their brethren were often driven into the backfield by a group of powerful defensive tackles. Not to worry; guys like Zack Martin and Travis Frederick held their ground just fine. Speaking of Fredbeard, he is a strong finisher who seems rather to enjoy planting opposing rushers into the torn sod. First this:


and then:


Once that defender had been uprooted from his planting, the team entered into the final team period, the first phase of which was red zone material in which each "string"  was given the ball at the opponent's 25 with the goal of scoring a touchdown. Only the first unit succeeded: after a disputed pass interference call on J.J. WIlcox gave the O a first down, Murray ran hard off the left side for six and, on second down, Romo found Dez at the one yard line. It took the starters a couple of plays to punch it in: a Murray run lost two, then Romo was hurried and threw a high wobbler incomplete but, on third down, Dez hauled in a back-shoulder catch over Sterling Moore. The second and third units were not as effective; both were held to field goal attempts - the second team after three weak plays.

Last up was situational work: Jason Garrett's situation of the day was this: each unit was given the ball on the 45 with 32 seconds left on the clock, trailing 19-17, with the goal to get the winning score. Romo led his men on a short drive: nice interior run by Murray; beautiful sideline pass to Witten to stop the clock; incomplete pass to Dez; Murray run to get better position for a field goal attempt (since Dan Bailey is the only kicker in camp, he only kicks every other day to preserve his leg; today was an off day). And that was it for Wednesday.

In the final "blue period" after a team stretch, O-line coaches Pollack and Callahan worked with their guys on pass sets, specifically when an opponent employs a spin move. The key, they instructed their charges, is to keep one's hands on the spinning D-lineman - in effect passing him off and along to yourself as he spins. This fine work was upstaged by tight ends coach Mike Pope, who fired passes at his players as they ran to and fro with bags over their heads (the bags were see-through but significantly reduced visibility) and then had them take turns carrying each other for 10-yard intervals. It's always something with that one...

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