In this morning's presser, Jason Garrett called yesterday's practice atmosphere "electric," a sentiment that was echoed by other observers and media types, many of whom affirmed that it was the most intense atmosphere they had ever experienced at a training camp. That was, of course, before today's affair, which by all accounts was more intense, chippy and physical than yesterday afternoon's scrimmage.
Once again, there were more Raiders fans than Cowboys fans in attendance, and by a wide margin. This was particularly the case on the far field, where the grandstands were packed and the section alongside the field reached its capacity limits more than an hour before practice started. On that side, Raiders fans outnumbered Cowboys faithful - by my unscientific study - somewhere in the range of 25 to one. As I spent yesterday watching the Cowboys offense against the Raiders defense, and had promised the BTB faithful that I would spend today checking out the defense, I joined the scattering of Cowboys-lovin' brethren in what amounted to a miniature version of the Black Hole.
I have had the, ummm, pleasure of watching a Cowboys-Raiders game from the Black Hole in the past. While this group didn't wear the outlandish costumes we associate with the Hole (although there were several fully adorned folk - one, puzzlingly, in an all-black mariachi costume), they were every bit as nasty and relentlessly vocal, filling the air with lots of anti-Cowboys chants and then, once practice began, picking on several Cowboys players, especially Mo Claiborne and Terrance Mitchell, the two men who had the distinct misfortune of lining up closest to the far sideline.
The Cowboys players weren't intimidated in the least. Yesterday, I felt that they were the more passive of the two teams, perhaps because they had been warned specifically not to start any fights. Today, I saw more of the competitiveness that had been one of Camp 2014's hallmarks. Indeed, a fan I spoke to noted, correctly, that it looked like the fights today (and, again, there were several of them, were all started by the Cowboys, most of them by an under-manned defensive unit that refused to back down. All camp, this has been a salty bunch.
As we waited for the Raiders' team buses to arrive, the Cowboys defense gathered for their pre-practice "blue period," which saw Garrett join a group of balaclava-wearing defensive guys who were the "scout team." The RHG served as scout team quarterback, smoothly running plays as the first team "D" worked on defensive assignments and fits. Garrett's overall involvement in practice has changed markedly this year, as he has spent considerably less time with the offense and become more of a "walk-around" head coach. This leads to a kind of detachment, and Garrett seems to deal with this by getting involved in drills whenever possible, especially when doing so doesn't take him away from more global surveying.
As I noted during yesterday's scrimmage, the overall practice schedule closely resembled that of any other training camp practice. Thus, the Cowboys began the morning with a standard walk-through phase that included special teams work (today this was kick return, with the first team return unit getting most of the snaps, against the twos), a rehearsal of the material on the morning's playsheet, an extended lower-body stretch and the pat-n-go, screen and ball periods.
Most of this work was unremarkable, with one notable exception: in 11-on-11 walk-through, the Cowboys defensive coaches were cycling through their cornerbacks, regardless of which unit was on the field and whether they were in base or nickel. After a couple of plays with the same group, for example, one of the coaching staff would blow a whistle and Orlando Scandrick would go to the sideline, Mo Claiborne would swing over to his vacated spot, and Brandon Carr would come on to take a few practice snaps. Soon thereafter, Claiborne went out and Terrance Mitchell came in. This was the first time I'd seen this substitution pattern used during camp - and it was only being used by the corners; all other defensive position groups stuck to their unit designations.
On the other field, the Raiders went through essentially the same elements, albeit in a different order. They stretched earlier in the sequence, and their stretching session looked much more like the Cowboys has in previous years, before concerns about lower-body soft tissue injuries prompted them to focus their stretching time on lower core (back, hip flexors) and legs (glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves). Other than that, however, the warm-up periods were close cousins: in particular, the only thing different about the Raiders' pat-n-go sessions was the uniforms.
Next up were position group drills, showcasing the work we have seen throughout training camp. In 2012, when Rob Ryan was the defensive coordinator, we saw a much greater variety of drills, especially on the defensive side. In this narrowed set of drills, we see the appeal of the Kiffinelli defensive scheme: more time to teach essential skills. It's better, the thinking goes, to ask defenders to do six different things, and give each of them five hours practice time, than to do fifteen different things, and give each two hours time. When defensive injuries mount, to the point where guys hired off the streets are playing significant snaps, this philosophy accrues greater benefits.
Instead of spreading out on two fields for their position group work, the Cowboys were confined to the near field, except when the defensive linemen came over to hit the blocking sleds (a key part of their daily practice routine). Since the sled pen is adjacent to the far field, they were greeted by a chorus of boos as they made their way over. Once in the pen, they were exhorted on by defensive staffers. One reminded Tyrone Crawford, "violent club on the second one," whereupon Crawford took another rep, using his right arm to move the "opponent" to his left, and then swung the left up in a powerful rip move.
A moment later, another assistant told Caesar Rayford, "Pad level, Caesar, pad level," when Rayford rose up out of his stance instead of firing out low - which is the key for a tall, leggy D-lineman like Rayford.
The position group work being done, the teams faced off for the first time on the day, in a three-group competitive period: OL vs. DL in one end zone, and WR vs. CB in the other, with running backs and tight ends against linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field. The Cowboys offense enjoyed success in these drills on Tuesday; today, the Raiders offense experienced a similar advantage. From what I saw (and it was hard to watch all three groups at once!) he Cowboys defensive line and cornerbacks were able to make some nice plays even if they didn't take the day. In particular, Terrance Mitchell made a terrific interception when faced off against James Jones, going up to snag a high pass on a fade route.
On the other hand, the linebackers and safeties didn't fare too well. They were generally abused, often biting too hard on initial moves and then giving up big gainers on wheel routes to RBs and plays up the seams to the Oakland tight ends. Although Mychal Rivera juked Jakar Hamilton badly, and was wide open down the seam on one play, the most obvious culprits were the downroster linebackers, guys like Will Smith and Orie Lemon, who were beaten regularly. The most disappointing result, however, was that DeVonte Holloman - who seems a candidate for nickel cover linebacker, a la Kevin Burnett circa 2005-09 - was routinely beaten. In a recent post, I ranked the team's various position groups, and linebackers came in dead last, in large part because they have the most lackluster depth on the roster. I saw nothing today to alter that opinion.
During this session, the Raiders fans harassed Rolando McClain constantly, with jibes about retirement littered amongst open questions about his manhood. It was clear that they have a special, distilled - and therefore more potent - brand of ire reserved for the former Oaklander. At least those that actually follow the team do; yesterday, when I was on the other side of the field, one fan was exhorting Sio Moore (who was drafted in 2013) to "make a play, Rolando," and had to be told by a friend that McClain was no longer with the team. Both were amazed when I informed them that, in fact, he was on the other field, scrimmaging against their Raiders.
After a special teams period wherein the Cowboys ran out their punt teams against the Raiders' punt units (and the Cowboys second-team had a punt blocked), the teams gathered for extended 11-on-11 work. On the far field, much of this was situational; the teams ran through red zone and two-minute material. But they also spent plenty of time running base plays in the middle of the field. Overall, the Cowboys defense held up much better than they did in one-on-one situations (in which the receiver has a clear advantage). In particular, they tightened up in the red zone, and the downroster D-line was able to get some penetration, disrupting several passing plays.
Indeed, the Cowboys defensive coaches were rotating a lot of different linemen in and out during the full team period. At one point, Tyrone Crawford, Devon Coleman, and Jerome Mincey were replaced by Kenneth Boatright, Caesar Rayford, Davon Coleman and Martez Wilson. As I noted above, both units were able to get some nice pressure; Rayford made a nice move on an Oakland right tackle to force the Raiders' signal caller out of the pocket, resulting in a throw-away. Overall, I was proud of the way the defensive guys competed, even more so when you consider that due to cornerback attrition, they are still playing backup safeties in the slot; today, Jeff Heath started as the de facto NB and, when he got dinged, was replaced by Jakar Hamilton.
A couple of personal favorite plays: a Cowboys defender (either Cam Lawrence or Adewale Ojomo, tipped a pass over the middle that arced high in the air before being corralled by Ryan Smith, who made a nifty return. On another, Kyle Wilber was positioned as the RDE, rushed the passer, and then hustled downfield to make the "tackle" on the receiver. Near the end of the red zone period, Justin Durant dropped back into the middle of the end zone to make a play on a pass near the goal post. It was an athletic demonstration by a player who has played this camp like the Durant the team thought it was getting when they signed him to a free agent contract before last season:
Justin durant having his best practice of camp - easily .. Meeting RBs in the hole and deflecting passes .. Disruptive— Nick Eatman (@nickeatman) August 13, 2014
The notable soft spot in the Cowboys defense was the interior run - although, as Eatman notes, Durant was doing some yeoman's work in that regard as well. On consecutive plays during the "scrimmage," the defense gave up sizable gains on interior runs. Later, in red zone work, they yielded a rather easy touchdown on an interior draw. If anybody is wondering why the team continues to express interest in Josh Brent's return, look no further than plays like these, which have been their bugaboo all camp, for your answer.
The day's work on the far field wrapped up with a Denarius Moore touchdown grab. Earlier, Rivera had hauled in a similar pass from Matt Schaub to end a practice period - and receiver a nice shot from Barry Church. To my mind, plays like these stand as a visual metaphor for the Cowboys "D" in 2014; as I tweeted during the practice, this defensive unit might not be very talented, but they are going to compete, and hard, all year.
As O.C.C. mentioned in live training camp thread, the Cowboys traditionally take an afternoon off towards the end of training camp and go to the beach. Jason Garrett always makes a game about it - the game is usually rigged, as he's not going to plan a beach bonding session and then negate it because a player missed a field goal - but it's a low-stakes part of the "compete" mantra that he preaches.
Today, after practice, he had Automatic Dan Bailey line up for a field goal attempt that was to determine the Cowboys afternoon fate: a walk-through practice or fun at the beach. After Bailey missed the first one, he asked for another chance from five yards further back. His wish was granted and he made the second shot, which would have been something like a 61-yarder. As it sailed through, the players cheered Bailey roundly, and looked forward to a well-deserved day in the sun after two tough, draining practices against Oakland.
Tomorrow afternoon will be the final practice of camp. And, as usual, I'll be there to bring you all the details....