As I noted in last night's practice report, the topic of yesterday's practice was the no-huddle. Today's practice continued with this theme, but ramped up the situational pressure by a few degrees: in the situational period at the end of Saturday's work, Jason Garrett gave the offense less than two minutes to score while trailing by three points. Today, they had considerably less time remaining on the clock and trailed by seven - a situation wherein a field go simply would not do.
This "ramping up" served to define Sunday's practice, which saw a continuation of Saturday's work, but with more intensity, physicality, pressure and purpose. One welcome continuation was that Tony Romo practiced again and, after notching his sharpest practice of camp, offered another sharp effort, albeit without all the deep passes. One reason for this was the day's agenda: they picked up where yesterday's initial work on the no-huddle left off, applying it to the opponents half of the field. In other words, red zone and goal line concepts prevailed, but were subjected to the pressure of time (or, more properly, a clock with precious few ticks remaining). Tick, tick, tick...
In another welcome continuation from Saturday, the defense once again played with tremendous physicality and, dare I say it, swagger. As I tweeted during practice, this team might not be good, but they'll play with an attitude and will hit people. As has often been the case in camp, the defense's emotional leader was Orlando Scandrick, who played Dez Bryant tough all day, and managed to get into his head during the final team period. After a series of plays in which Bryant kept coming after Scandrick at the whistle, the two warriors got into a brief shoving match - and receivers coach took Dez off the field, replacing him with Devin Street.
After practice, Bryant told reporters that, from his vantage point, this was the best practice the defense had thus far in camp, noting that Scandrick and company got into the offensive guys' heads. He apparently told Scandrick, "when we're talking back, it's obviously a good sign that y'all are doing something against us." If the amount of yapping the offensive guys engaged in today is any sign, the defensive players capped off a bounce-back weekend with a fine practice, indeed.
As has almost always been the case at this camp, practice opened with a special teams period that saw Rich Bisaccia and his assistants putting the team through their kickoff coverage and return paces. As with all the special teams units, it's been a real treat to watch 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, and he has taken the various teams units from a very rudimentary step one to the point where they are maintaining good technique, awareness and spacing almost by second nature (albeit at a walk-through pace, and without contact). If Bisaccia is a choreographer, kickoff coverage is the complex number that closes out the first act.
After the opening special teams session, the team gathered on the far field for an 11-on-11 walk-through. During this session, I noticed a return of a schematic wrinkle that I had noticed in some of the earliest camp practices: Linehan deployed his guys in 11 personnel (one RB, one TE), and the lone running back, often Lance Dunbar, would line up in the backfield and then motion out wide, to the end of the formation.
Typically, the player at the end of the formation before the RBs went in motion was Cole Beasley; the motion thus turned him from a flanker into a slot receiver, his bread and butter. Previously, when we saw this motion, the running back would run a pattern or stand and turn to receive the rudiments of a bubble screen, which functioned essentially as a handoff into space. With this package, however, Beasley often seemed to be the primary option, running almost exclusively slants and shallow crosses - plays that accord with the shallow red-zone work with which the practice concluded.
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. That said, there was a change-up in the way this was undertaken. Previously, the team would line up on the near field, along one sideline, sitting down there to stretch (static stretching) and then rising to walk-stretch (ballistic stretching) en route to the other sideline where they would then engage in a different static stretch. Today, they adhered to the same static-ballistic combo, but lined up on the yard lines and moved towards the goal posts - perhaps in preparation for pregame stretches, which will have to be done in this manner.
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. As camp has worn on, the amount of time apportioned for this technique-specific work has diminished as the coaches have carved out more time for the competitive and full-team periods. Today marked perhaps the briefest position group period we have seen thus far: quick, cursory revisits of drills that they players have executed multiple times in earlier camp practices.
A couple of observational highlights: O-line coaches Frank Pollack and Bill Callahan divvied their guys up into two groups: to work on basic zone blocking principles. What was interesting was watching Pollack (Callahan did it as well), standing behind his three linemen, silently direct his "defensive" guys to take certain angles, which the offensive guys had to adjust to. After each snap, he would offer quick encouragement and then go again, working the same offensive concept against a different defensive set. Rather than working separately, as is their usual mode, the offensive skill position players gathered almost immediately to run plays against air, working through the calls on the day's playsheet.
The defensive linemen once again went through the "Crawford Drill" followed by practicing hand-fighting with Leon Lett and the famous "tennis ball" drill, which asks them to dip and bend the edge. The linebackers worked on pursuit drills, where they scrape along the line, making sure they stay on the ballcarrier's inside shoulder (to prevent creating a cut-back lane), the corners revisited basic footwork and safeties on their drops. The entire secondary worked on intercepting by high-pointing the ball. All of this was fairly standard issue stuff...
While this was happening, Brandon Carr and Jakar Hamilton could be seen working with a member of the training staff on their footwork, backpedaling and turning or dropping back and then clicking and closing on a play in front of them. Both looked quick and agile; frankly, Hamilton was faster out of his breaks than was Carr - but that might be expected, given Carr's extended absence. In other injury news, George Selvie, Ben Gardner, Ben Bass, Jordan Najvar, Tyler Patmon were running with trainers (always the step before the "get on the bands," which signals a return to practice). On the flip side, Henry Melton (groin injury) and Tyrone Crawford (calf tightening) both seemed to get dinged up a bit during on-on-one drills; each might not return until after the second preseason game.
Next up was the day's first competitive period. As might be expected, we immediately saw the O-line apply the work that Callahan and Pollack put in with them. Today they were joined by the "blocking" tight ends - James Hanna and Dallas Walker - since the daily playsheet featured several edge/ outside runs. Tight ends coach Mike Pope was particularly vociferous, encouraging his guys on run blocks. To Hanna, who did a nice job sealing Tyrone Crawford, a thunderous: "There you go! There you go!" A couple of plays later, he could be heard telling Walker to "Drive your legs! Drive your legs!"
On the near field, the other two TEs - Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar - joined the running backs, and they faced off against the safeties and linebackers, executing RB/ TE route combinations. On another part of the field, we were treated to the most competitive position group work of the day (and battles that continued long past this particular competitive session): wide receivers against corners in short-area red zone work. Although the wideouts clearly had the upper hand in this particular battle (Dez Bryant beat Orlando Scandrick on two fades, the second of which saw him go over Scandrick to snatch the ball away, just as the corner was coming in for the strip; Cole Beasley added a pretty end zone toe-tapper as well), the corners, by all accounts, won the daily war.
To wit: today's schedule included two riveting best-on-best sessions, with the team tightly gathered to watch (and to cheer on and to celebrate) individual matchups. The first of these saw receivers against defensive backs in the deep red zone, with Scandrick blanketing Bryant and batting away a Romo pass and then doing the same to Cole Beasley. In addition, we had the "battle of the Terrances," with cornerback Mitchell coming out ahead of wideout Williams, and Bruce Carter manhandling DeMarco Murray within the five-yard zone, such that Murray couldn't complete his route. In total, the defensive backs won the session by a 4-2 score. The jubilant defense's chirping didn't make Jason Witten very happy; after beating Barry Church on a short out route, he spiked the ball hard in the end zone. To make a point, you know.
Following this, we had a spirited full team period that saw the offense run plays in the middle of the field. There were some mishaps (Tyron Smith and his replacement, Jermey Parnell, were called for back-to-back false starts early in team drills, resulting in John Wetzel taking first a handful of team snaps; Wetzel himself was later called for a false start, and was summarily replaced), but most of the news was good. By this point in the post, it's not news, but Scandrick was awesome, covering Bryant like a glove and coming up to make a big hit on Dwayne Harris on a reverse, as can be seen in this sequence:
Perhaps the best news from this session was the play of Rolando McClain, who returned to team drills for the first time in perhaps a week. He shone in back-to-back plays, first sorting through trash at the line to make a nifty stop on a DeMarco Murray run and then - even more impressive - sliding to his left before the snap to find a gap on a run in the other direction, then sprinting along the line, almost running down the speedy Lance Dunbar on an edge run. In its depleted state, the Cowboys defense needs a heart-warming story; McClain is the best option to provide such a narrative.
After a special teams period that saw them work on the field goal units (while receivers and running backs practiced breaking down and tackling) followed by punt return work, the squad broke down into two groups for the second competitive period, featuring a 7-on-7 session (which, of course, is a misnomer, since it's typically 5-on-5) for the handsome, skinny guys while the big uglies were gathered in a circle, going head-to-head on pass rush drills. An interesting note: Bruce Carter took part in individual pass rush drills, working on outside rushes against the team's offensive tackles. It remains to be seen what this meant, if anything: was Carter simply working on blitzing? Are the coaches thinking of him as a possible third-down pass rusher?
The second best-on-best session was derived from this one-on-one work. With the team around them, Garrett would call out two numbers - one a defensive lineman, the other an offensive lineman - and the two men would square off, with the the goal to get to/ protect Tony Romo:
Two highlights: after working with the DL in today's pass rush drills, Bruce Carter made an impressive move on Witten to get into the backfield; the offense exacted revenge, however, as Murray stonewalled Justin Durant at the line, eliciting a chorus of "oooooohs..."
One one rush, Henry Melton whipped Zack Martin, showing the combination of quickness and power that made him a much-feared player when in Chicago. As camp has progressed, these Melton vs. Martin clashes have become both a highlight and a barometer of each man's progress. Of late, Melton has been faring slightly better. It remains to be seen how much today's groin injury will set him back. Whatever the case, his steady, incremental improvement serves as a reminder that camp - and the preseason in general - is a marathon, not a sprint. While in the news-saturated camp bubble, it's easy to forget that the only goal that matters is opening day against the 49ers, and that there are light years of practice time between now and then.
The final 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, however - probably because the agenda was the hurry-up, where between-play communication is so vital - they didn't use the music as the team went to the line. Perhaps in future no-huddle practices, they will add this challenging element.
As I mentioned in the opening, today's work concluded with a nail-biting scenario: the Cowboys offense took possession with 48 seconds on the clock, trailing 24-17. In previous scenarios, a field goal would win or tie the game; today, they had to score a touchdown. The first team offense took the ball in for a score: Romo threw a sideline pass to Williams, who scooted out of bounds to stop the clock; passed over the middle to Escobar for a gain of about five, which drew a time out call from the sidelines; threw a wobbly pass to Beasley, who caught the ball at the three; then, with 20 seconds and counting on the clock, quickly got the team to the line and ran a draw to Murray, who shot up the middle for what would have been the tying score.
Next, the first unit had the ball against the second team defense, with a first and goal at the eight yard line, with nine seconds remaining and the same 24-17 score. Romo again led off with a play to Williams, who merely stood at the line while the play developed, then took the ball down the sideline and out of bounds for a gain of four. The next play, Romo threw incomplete to the end zone, in the direction of both Beasley and Bryant. With two seconds left, Linehan called a quarterback draw, and a smiling Romo received the snap, took a step back and half-heartedly ran up the middle, flinging the ball into the end zone, towards Beasley, when he was surrounded before he could score.
And, with that, the horn sounded and the Cowboys called it a day. Tomorrow, they have their final off day in Oxnard, during which they will rest up in preparation for two days of scrimmages with the Raiders. I'll be resting up as well, as I want my faculties to be at full expression for those practices, which promise to be an important litmus test. In anticipation of big (and perhaps, overly gang friendly) crowds, the team has announced that these practices will have "limited capacity." Sounds like it will be a circus; I can't hardly wait...!