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Cowboys 2014 Training Camp Practice Summary: The Return Of The Jedi-fense

Observations from the Cowboys eighth training camp practice, during which the defense rebounded from Thursday's butt-whippin'.

Are we looking at the Cowboys' new first-team WLB?
Are we looking at the Cowboys' new first-team WLB?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday's practice was a shorter affair than usual, coming in at almost a full half hour before those late last week. This may well be due to the nature of one of today's primary focal points: goal line offense. Unlike, say, work on the third down offense, players' bodies can only take so many reps. As a result, the full team periods, which had been growing in duration and intensity late last week, were brief and brisk affairs: the team got its work done, knocked the heck out of each other, and moved on to the next item on the day's agenda.

That said, the over-riding theme of the day's action was the resurgent defense. After struggling - and that's putting it nicely - on Thursday, the defense was better today, and it was especially clear in the goal line period, which featured a total of six full-contact plays. Although the offense scored an easy TD on the first play, the defense proceeded to hold them for the most part, winning on four of the six plays (the other exception being a nice play action pass to Tyler Clutts).

And, speaking of unusual goal-line plays, we later saw an interesting wrinkle: the fake-hand-off-quarterback-keeper. In 11-on-11 session, Brandon Weeden faked a handoff left and then rolled right, finding an open edge for what would have been an easy touchdown. Caleb Hanie later ran the same play on the other side, finding a similarly open field.

Interesting position switches: Dartwan Bush was the starting left defensive end on the first team goal line defense, an indication that they are pleased with his camp work to this juncture. In addition, DeVonte Holloman spent the day as the first unit weakside linebacker, with Bruce Carter taking snaps with the second team. This switcheroo may have been due to the fact that Carter was feeling poorly (a bad stomach) or that he's been demoted. Or, perhaps the defensive coaches are continuing their mixing-and-matching process. Whatever the case, it's a storyline that will bear further scrutiny.

A couple of other defensive wrinkles that I found interesting: during the final full team period (when the competition is at its highest), Kyle Wilber played right defensive end - but he was standing up, in a "Leo" position. As my boy Landon McCool tweeted, it's surprising how much faster off the edge Wilber is than he was in camp a year ago; the curious thing about this is that he's spent much of his time since then playing outside linebacker, working on pass drops. In the same drive, when the offense had the ball with less than ten seconds on the clock, the defense deployed in a sort of "red zone prevent" in which Holloman was positioned as a deep safety right on the goal line.

On Saturday, the Terrance Mitchell chronicles continued. After having a few nice practice days before the off day, the Cowboys coaches made sure to match Mitchell up against the best the offense had to offer in one-on-one passing drills. Obviously, that means he saw several snaps against Dez Bryant, who generally abused him. That said, Cowboys' secondary coach Jerome Henderson was in Mitchell's ear between reps, loudly giving him tips on technique. My first thought when watching this was that Henderson was doing this precisely because the team thinks this kid has something. They are coaching him hard because they believe the investment will bear fruit.

It's a good thing that Mitchell has stepped up his game, because the cornerbacks are quickly becoming an endangered species, much like the defensive line. Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Sterling Moore were already out for the afternoon, and the team lost Dashaun Phillips during one-on-one drills, leaving them with only four able-bodied corners. As a result, they recruited Jakar Hamilton, who has played the position before, to serve in mop-up duty. Throughout the final team period's situational work, Hamilton lined up with the first unit as a nickel corner, and tried to cover the likes of Cole Beasley (not particularly successfully) and La Ron Byrd (with more success).

As has been the case in recent practices, Jason Garrett asked his players to apply what they had learned to realistic and pressure-packed game situations. Today, the set-up was as follows: the team trailed 20-23 with just over a minute to play and about 60 yards to go. Brandon Weeden led the first team on a game-tying drive, in no small part thanks to a series of successful plays run against B.W. Webb. The defense was avenged when the second team took the field, however, as Jeff Heath stripped James Hanna after the tight end caught a pass in the right flat, with the defense recovering. The defenders gathered around Heath, whooping loudly.

Speaking of loud whoops, today's first "best-on-best" session featured Lance Dunbar versus Justin Durant, who was no match for the super-quick scatback. Dunbar blew by him for a sizeable gain as the players - who are clearly enamored of this concept - shouted out encouragement and then traded smacktalk. Later, Jason Garrett again gathered the players in a tight circle and asked Zack Martin and Doug Free to step into the ring against Henry Melton and George Selvie. That time around, the defenders more than held their own, getting nice penetration.

And, speaking of the offensive line: I read a scholarly article years ago from a psychologist who had been asked by the San Diego Chargers to visit with the team and, among other things, to assess the personality type of players at each position. One of his observations was that offensive linemen tend not to be individualists; rather, they feel more secure as part of a team or larger group. This asseveration is certainly true insofar as it applies to the Cowboys' O-line, all of whom came onto the field as one (and, apparently, all hang out together on off days, eat their meals together, work out as a group, etc.). This tendency toward cohesion is one of many reasons the OL promises to be the heart of the 2014 squad.

A couple of former Dallas OL, Larry Allen and Nate Newton, were in attendance, joining should-be Hall of Famer Charles Hayley on the practice field. Each spent time watching the drills pertinent to their former positions. At the end of practice, as usually happens, Jason Garrett gathered the team to assess the practice, go over the schedule, etc. Today, this session was considerably longer than usual, as he spent some time introducing the three former greats, and extolling their virtues to the team. At one point a bit later, Dez Bryant stepped up and spoke to the team rather demonstratively, doing some exhorting of his own. Anybody who questions whether he is a leader simply hasn't watched the way he behaves. In his passion, he was positively Michael Irvin-esque.

It seems that the defense's resilience made an impression on its head coach. After practice, Garrett came over to the fence to sign autographs and, as he did so, asked the gathered fans who they thought won the day. Several yelled out that it was the offense, because "Dez was awesome." Garrett smiled slightly, and asked them whether they had seen the fumble that ended practice. It was clear from his expression that he felt the defense has acquitted itself quite well, indeed.


Stay tuned, loyal readers; My podcast partner in crime, Landon McCool, and I will have a 90-man roster ranking based on what we've seen in camp so far - as a nice segue into the Blue-White scrimmage. We'll have it later tonight/ early tomorrow morning (depending on your time zone)...

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