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Cowboys Training Camp Report, Practice Number Ten: Depleted Defense Struggles

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Observations and analysis from the Cowboys tenth training camp practice, during which they covered some familiar ground and introduced a few new wrinkles. One development was not new: the defense, which was missing more than ten players, once again struggled.

Cole Beasley is a veritable Atlas
Cole Beasley is a veritable Atlas
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Headed into Monday's "night practice" (it started 90 minutes later than usual), it was widely speculated that the Cowboys would have an easier, lighter practice after a physical weekend that culminated in Sunday's blue-white scrimmage, which featured tackling to the ground. That was not the case, however, as Jason Garrett and his coaches put the team through a full schedule, complete with physical, competitive and full team (11-on-11) periods. And the players appeared to give him energetic, if not focused, work. Indeed, the practice was marred by a bevy of dropped passes, false starts and miscommunications at the line.

This was all the more remarkable considering the number of players that now dot the injury rolls. A grand total of fourteen men missed practice, most of them on the defense: George Selvie, Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Lawrence, Matt Johnson, Barry Church, Terrell McClain, Mo Claiborne, Will Smith, Jakar Hamilton, Dashaun Phillips, Brandon Carr, and Sterling Moore all failed to dress; Rolando McClain, who tweaked his hamstring on Sunday, started to practice but soon had to walk off the field with trainers.The most evident consequence of these injuries was that, after two salty days in which they gave the offense all they had, the defense fell back to Earth, giving up a passel of big plays.

One result of this mounting list was that the team only had four corners available to practice. Jerome Henderson seemed to take the gas off the pedal a little today in position group drills, since his guys were getting so many reps. From my vantage point, he was trying to save them for the various competitive and full-team periods, when his corners has to take as many as three times as many reps as Derek Dooley's receiving group. The Cowboys tried to sign a CB off the street yesterday, but he failed to pass his physical; surely, they will continue in this effort; it hardly seems imaginable that the team would bring only four corners to San Diego, especially when one of them, Orlando Scandrick, should only play a series or two.

Interestingly, Martez Wilson, the man who was arguably Sunday's Player of the Day,  was the first guy on the field on Monday. He came out early to work with assistant D-line coach Leon Lett on his hand fighting work. Furthermore, he was one of the last to leave the field Monday evening, numbering among the handful of defensive linemen who stayed after for more work with Lett. One of the storylines of camp thus far has been Wilson's progress, from fish out of water to possible answer for the gaping hope at weakside DE. On Monday, it was clear what had fueled his transformation: consistent, hard work.

Before the official start of practice, the defense gathered to work on run fits. The last man on the field was Jeremy Mincey, whose late arrival did not go unnoticed. As he hustled over to where his defensive mates were already set to work, Orlando Scandrick yelled out, quite loudly, "F&#% Mincey. Same time every day. We say we want to be good." This was awesome for two reasons: clearly, the defense is talking about how it wants to be good, and what it will take to get there. And Scandrick is stepping up, policing the guys whose actions belie their words. Last time I checked, this is called leadership.

Any notions that today's schedule might be different from those of typical practices were soon dispelled. As they always do, the team opened up on the far field with a special teams session, conducted at walk-through pace (remember that the players hadn't yet stretched). The topic of today's "teams" work was punt and punt return, with most of the focus put on the nuances of alignment and spacing. The players appear to be much more confident and precise in this regard than they were when camp opened. Now, on the punt cover team, for example, you can see the second level of defenders fit in behind the first layer, moving as they track the ball, yet not allowing too much space between the two.

This was followed by the first full team period, during which the team ran through the day's playsheet at a walk-through pace (again: they hadn't yet stretched). We saw a goodly amount of 11 (three-wide) and 12 (two tight end) personnel groupings. Strangely, it was sometimes hard to distinguish between the two, largely because of how they deploy second year TE Gavin Escobar. Jason Witten is always in the huddle whenever they have a tight end in the game, but they shuttle in other players - Street, Harris, Beasley, Williams, Escobar- with some frequency And when it's Escobar, he's often in the slot, so it looks like a three-wide formation (Linehan and Co. seem to see him more as a big receiver than as a tight end; when they go to a traditional 2-tight end set, with both guys in the in-line "Y" position, its almost always James Hanna who joins Witten).

After the stretching and pat-n-go sessions, the team was properly warmed up and stretched, and ready to begin practice in earnest. Up next is the "ball period," which has many brief phases:

-The corners work on backpedaling and driving to a fixed location pointed to by a coach, and then on making contested interceptions as they cut in front of a receiver (with the contestation provided by Jerome Henderson holding a pad):

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At the same time, the safeties work on backpedaling, taking a good angle to a long pass, then high-pointing it for an interception. Next, they joined the corners to work on fading back, then changing direction to close on a ballcarrier. This tests players' ability to drop, "click-n-close" and to break down and wrap up a moving ballcarrier - all in one efficient exercise! After this, the corners worked on their footwork in press coverage, with outside leverage: two shuffle-steps to the side without crossing over, and then turning to run with the receiver while getting a hand on him in that first five-yard area.

-The DL practices firing out quickly, then work on doing so low (hitting blocking sleds as they do). After getting their bodies quick and low once again, they turn to a series of bag drills. The first of these has them weaving through four evenly-spaced bags, turning to get to the "quarterback," represented by a bag with a partially-inflated ball at the top:

Ball_drill_large

This exercise not only test players' hands and footwork, but, because the goal is the ball in the "QBs" hands, fits nicely in the "ball period." To make this abundantly clear, one of the defensive coaches could be heard telling his players to "get the ball, get the ball" as they worked their way through the bags.

After this, the D-line separates into two units for some technique work. The defensive tackles work on handfghting at close range, with the objective that they free themselves and get to the QB. The defensive ends move to the "tennis ball drill," in which they work on handfighting with an offensive tackle, gaining the edge, dipping around him and scooping up a tennis ball on the ground (to get the ball while moving, a player can't help but "dip and bend."

-Meanwhile, the LBs first work on two stripping drills: one where they come up from behind and swat the ball out and another wherein they approach the ballcarrier from the front, punch the ball out and then try to recover it as it bounces. Next, the 'backers practice scraping along the line in pursuit on an edge run - with the key being that they don't over-run the play. This done, they visit a drill frequently seen at the NFL Combine: a coach holds a ball out and they follow the direction he moves it. This works on their ability to drop-and-close quickly and efficiently.

Following this, they move over to where assistants have placed a set of upside-down garbage cans to represent offensive linemen. Thee of them play offensive players who line up, go in motion, etc, and the LBs on the other side are supposed to make the necessary adjustments, with a particular focus on run fits - something the Cowboys linebackers (especially the backups and mid-season replacements) really struggled with last year. Because this is such important work, LB coach Matt Eberfluss took time to offer detailed explanations, corrections, etc.

Once the "ball period" reached its conclusion, the team broke into three groups for its first competitive period, with offensive line and running backs ran running plays against the defensive line. On the near field, the linebackers and safeties (with three and two at a time, respectively) matched up against the tight ends and running backs, working on covering the various underneath and combo routes run by those positions. And, finally, Henderson's tiny group of four went up against the wide receivers in one-on-one passing drills. As promised in his presser, Jason Garrett showed this tiny troupe of coverage guys no sympathy. Although overmatched, reports are that they held their own.

The team then moved to another 11-on-11 team period. The first item on the agenda was to attend to a set of plays designed to get the team out from the shadow of its goal line. The first, team, helmed by Tony Romo, ran four straight running plays, the first two of which opened huge holes for DeMarco Murray, first off of right tackle, and then on the left side. Once the running phase was over, the second team and Brandon Weeden came in and they worked on passing plays used to get out of the end zone.

Ever think the coaches don't take these competitive periods seriously? Today, receivers coach Derek Dooley ran down the sideline to light into one of the officials after a play in which Dwayne Harris suffered a great deal of contact, snapping, "you can't hit him after five yards! He's knocking the $%^*& out of him!" The official responded that Harris had stepped out of bounds, and was thus not eligible - and could therefore be involved in contact without penalty. Dooley, unsatisfied, continued to berate him well into the next play.

After the full team period, the Cowboys gathered for shorter than usual special teams session (the morning walk-through had been all special teams focused), during which they worked on kickoff and kick return. On most days, these aspects are worked on at the beginning of practice, before the team has stretched and warmed up. As a result, work on the kick teams has been executed at walk-through tempo. Today, they were able to ramp it up for one of the few times in camp. The result? Lots of smacking pads at the end of full bore downfield runs. Perhaps because of the dearth of bodies at corner, a couple of wide receivers  - Tim Benford and Chris Boyd - found themselves playing on the first team kick units for the first time in camp. I suspect that we'll see more such switcheroos in San Diego, as the coaching staff works to preserve its CBs and limit their snaps to defense.

This was followed by another competitive period, with the team divvied up into two units instead of three: 7-on-7 on one side of the far field and one-on-one pass rush drills on the other. I like what the coaches do with the pass rush drills. They have several O-linemen line up, even if only one of them takes a particular rep. That's because they want both rusher and blocker to experience realistic spacing. Once that OL finishes his rep, another takes his place and the coaches call another another defensive line position ("three tech! three tech!") to come to the line and have a go.

The 7-on-7 work focused on red zone and goal line work, material that the team had spent a good deal of time on in the last few days. When in goal line defense, Jerome Henderson shouted at his charges, "level, level, level!" as a way of reminding them not to stratify across the end zone, thus leaving bigger gaps for the offense to exploit. The offense used a lot of 12 (two tight end) personnel, and deployed them in many different formations: both TEs in-line, with a receiver flanked outside each; the inverse: receivers on opposite sides, with one tight end aligned outside each; or both TEs on the same side, with one tight and another slightly flexed outside of him, and a receiver outside of them, thus creating a "trips" effect. Same personnel, in a multiplicity of sets.

A development that we saw a week or so ago, when the Cowboys were working on a lot three-wide sets, cropped up again today. On more than one occasion, Linehan sent four receivers deep, and then had his running back release underneath, often finding room to run in zones evacuated by deep-dropping defenders. Today, we witnessed a similar effect: four men ran routes into the end zone and Joseph Randle ran into the left flat, where he found room to run, carrying a short pass down to the one yard line. Linehan seemingly wants to force defenses into a "pick your poison" situation: cover either deep or short, but not both. On another play, he exploited the field's width, sending three receivers on verticals, and had Chris Boyd cross underneath them, catching a short pass on the run and strolling into the end zone at its midpoint.

After the day's "best on best" session, which pitted Ronald Leary vs. Nick Hayden (with Leary holding up well), the team commenced the final team period, during which they ran a series of plays into the end zone. Dwayne Harris was particularly effective in this session, which capped what was probably his best practice of camp. Here he is taking in a pass deep in the red zone:

D._harris_large

After this, the Cowboys moved on to the final "situational" period that serves as the culmination of the day's work. Today's scenario was a bit dire: the offense got the ball on its own 25, trailing 28-30, with 42 seconds left on the clock. These desperate times barely had time to impact our Cowboys lovin' ulcers, as the first team scored in two plays: a short pass followed by a scoring bomb to Cole Beasley, who lined up in the slot opposite Orlando Scandrick. Beasley offered a sharp outside step, on which Scandrick bit, and then cut sharply inside, shooting past the off-balance defender, gathering in Romo's pass at the 35 and running in for the 70-yard score that marked the end of practice.

I'll leave you with this tidbit: In the midst of the running drills during the first competitive period, Ron Leary and an unidentified defensive lineman began trading pushes before being separated by teammates. The team has been in Oxnard almost two weeks; today marked the tenth practice. After no incidents of this nature in the first eight, there has now been a tussle on two consecutive days. Clearly, the team has reached that moment in training camp where they need to hit guys wearing a different color jersey. They'll have their opportunity on Thursday...