As today's Blue-White Scrimmage was widely broadcast and remains available for our perusal, I won't spend much time herein discussing the blow-by-blow. A quick perusal of the tape will reveal that the affair was largely situational, with the Cowboys revisiting the red zone and two-minute work they had covered in recent practices, and ramping it up by imposing real game scenarios. Perhaps because these scenarios induced a greater competitive sense within the players, this was the most spirited practice of a camp increasingly marked by its competitiveness.
The zenith of this, of course, was the oft-covered kerfluffle between J.J. Wilcox and Dez Bryant, which included an overly physical hit (Wilcox), a headbutt (Bryant) a wild punch (Wilcox) and a flurry of counter-punches (both players), followed by a scrum as players from both sides of the ball tried to separate them. Although fighting between teammates is usually not condoned, almost everybody - from Jason Garrett to Wilcox's defensive mates - seemed pleased by the skirmish, especially (and ironically) by its community-building potential. When Wilcox went to the sideline, several defensive mates came over to where he was to give him some love; for a "D" needing any reason to feel good about itself, his hit was a crucial event.
That was not the day's finest play, however. That honor belongs to Orlando Scandrick, who skied high in the air to tip and then catch a high pass along the left sideline - one that Tony Romo later said he was trying to throw away. Scandrick has often been criticized for his hands (or lack thereof), but has reportedly been working on improving this aspect of his game. If today's top play is any indication, he's done yeoman's work.
Scandrick's defensive running mates joined him in some fine work on Sunday. Late last week, you will recall, the defense was humiliated in the full team period, especially in the run period, as the Dallas O-line opened big holes between the tackles and, on multiple occasions, got runners to the edge unscathed. Since then, the defense has improved tremendously. One of the key reasons for this is improved run fits and reading keys more accurately. Rod Marinelli's defensive staff has been working on them a lot, and the work appeared to be paying off this weekend, as the offense found running room considerably more difficult to come by.
Moreover, after getting stuck on blocks too easily late last week, defensive front seven players started to disrupt plays this weekend by getting penetration. On Sunday, Tyrone Crawford blew up a run about four yards in the backfield and, a few plays, later, DeVonte Holloman did the same on the other side of the field. Defensive penetration (and the resultant disruption) is this defense's hallmark, so it was a welcome sight to see blue jerseys playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Speaking of Holloman, he made a superb play during Sunday's scrimmage, covering the deep zone in cover-2. This, as you know, is the benchmark for a middle linebacker in this system: does he have the wheels to run with tight ends and slot receivers up the seam to fill one of soft spots in Cover-2? Indeed, Holloman did; he raced back about 50 yards to deflect a deep Brandon Weeden pass intended for Tim Benford.
This brings me to the Cowboys' linebacking corps in general, a unit that has gone under-reported thus far. This is largely due to geography: they always practice on the one place on the field that has the least access. In the last couple of days, however, this has changed, so I wanted to share some scattered - and long overdue - impressions of what is probably the team's most unsettled position group:
In chatting with the other half of "Double Coverage," my podcast co-host Landon McCool, we discussed the Cowboys' "athletic freaks" - the players who were simply superior athletically to the other players on the team. The obvious candidates are Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith. McCool offered another: middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who has incredible speed, agility and range for a man of his size (he, like Holloman, can run up the seam, but at 260 pounds). It remains to be seen whether he'll return to that form any time soon (or ever, really), but it was an interesting point, and makes me want to study McClain in much greater depth.
Related to the McClain signing is what the club has done - albeit quite subtly and without the fanfare usually attendant on such moves - with Anthony Hitchens. Immediately after the draft, you may recall, it was communicated that Hitchens was drafted as an emergency backup linebacker should anything happen to Sean Lee. As soon as Lee went down, the first question was: can Hitchens handle manning the defensive pivot? Apparently, the coaches don't believe so; he started camp as an outside 'backer and has stayed there throughout, even as the coaches have mixed and matched players all across the front seven.
That's not to say that they have fallen out of love with the former Hawkeye. Rather, they seem to have developed a clearer view of the realistic contribution he is capable of making: a backup OLB who is a key special teams contributor. Indeed, Hitchens is one of the four or five players - and the only rookie, I believe - to be found on each of the special teams units. This level of use suggests that the coaches have a clearly articulated plan for him. It's just not the plan that they had initially conceived (or, perhaps, the one that caused them to give him a fourth round grade).
Speaking of former fourth rounders, I believe one of the team's most improved players is Kyle Wilber. This time last year, he appeared to struggle in pass rush drills, where he lacked the kind of burst required of weakside ends in this system. Somehow, after an extended period of time working as a strongside linebacker, he's gained an explosion and burst that he didn't have twelve months ago. Now, not only does he do an excellent job anchoring the strong side, he has shown to be one of the leading candidates to become the ingredient this defense most needs: that explosive weak-side end.
The other candidate at that position is a former linebacker, Martez Wilson. Earlier in camp, I wrote that he had the best burst of the team's defensive linemen, but seemed to struggle with technique, often drawing criticism from Rod Marinelli. Over the course of camp, however, he has improved steadily, showing much better hands and using better leverage. He twice beat back-up OT Jermey Parnell in one-on-one pass rush drills on Sunday, once by using his superior burst to beat him around the edge and then by using a quick outside step and then cutting inside so rapidly that the off-balance Parnell couldn't recover.
As I said above, that kind of line play is doing to be one of the biggest difference makers going forward...