In my earlier practice summary, I noted that the Cowboys changed up the order of business during Tuesday's practice session. On a typical practice day, the team schedules a standard set of daily drills (they can have two full hours of new material every day): an opening special teams period; a "ball period" in which the defense works on generating turnovers; a "screen period" wherein the offense runs through a litany of screen passes against air; firing out drills for defensive linemen. These are mixed in with "competitive periods" (usually, there are two of these) during which different units go against each other, either singularly or in groups as well as full team 11-on-11 sessions, in which the offense and defense go head to head, running plays from that day's playsheet.
Today, in preparation for Thursday's contest, the Cowboys cut the competitive periods, using the extra time gained from this surgery to schedule much more extensive 11-on-11 work. This makes sense; Jason Garrett had mentioned to reporters that the team would use Tuesday's practice to prepare for the Chargers. As is the case in-season, teams prepare for games not with individual drills but with full team work - that's why you often hear coaches say they will return to fundamentals during bye weeks: there is no time for detailed technique work during the compressed NFL week.
Today's affair began in typical fashion, with a special teams period focusing on kickoff return at a walk-through tempo, slowly working through issues such as spacing, release timing, and positioning. To save Dan Bailey's leg (he is, after all, the only kicker in camp), they always use the JUGS machine to simulate his high, arching kickoffs. In preparation for the Chargers, Rich Bisaccia and his crew spent extra time reviewing this material with the second and third teamers, given that they will be the ones getting the lion's share of special teams snaps on Thursday.
During this period, the offensive linemen always work off to the side, often in two groups (i.e., either left and right sides of the line or interior line and tackles). Today, they worked on pass sets, especially on delivering an initial punch. The group was joined by new addition Wayne Tribue, a large, powerful man who appeared to be a good fit in terms of body type (after 2011, the Cowboys seem to prefer larger, more powerful interior linemen). Next, they worked on picking up a specific type of 3-4 stunt wherein a 5-tech end hits the OT's outside shoulder and the OLB outside of him cuts inside on an interior stunt.
Next up was the 11-on-11 walkthrough, wherein the team cycled through the day's playscript at half speed. This always offers us a preview of the day's agenda; today, this meant a heavy dose of 11 (three-receiver) and 12 (two-TE) sets, with an array of different alignments. Scott Linehan threw in a few plays with a fullback in the lineup for good measure. As has been the case for much of camp, I was impressed by how many different personnel combinations and alignments Linehan's scheme uses (in fact, one might argue that Garrett's propensity for formation variety comes from Linehan; he certainly didn't get it from Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese)
After an extended lower-body stretching session and the daily pat-n-go, with the defense in its "ball period" (primarily consisting of turnover drills), the offense gathered for the "screen period," during which they review the basics of the screen game, at speed and against air. Many pundits have pointed out that Linehan's offense will feature more screen passes this year. As you know, screens are the kind of play that require great precision to execute; Linehan and his offensive staff certainly seem willing to schedule the necessary (daily) installation time to ensure that they will be able to turn confidently to this thick chapter from the playbook.
Next for the receivers and tight ends were a series of pass patterns. The team deployed the wideouts along the numbers on one side of the field and the tight ends on the other. Inside of them were the slot receivers: Cole Beasley and Tim Benford, who ran a different set of routes than the other receivers. The routes themselves appeared to progress along the standard route tree:
Wide receivers: slant; short in; comeback; 12-yard out
Slot receiver: short in; smash (fake outside and then come back across middle); drag
Tight ends: short in; hitch/ stab route; 14-yard out
These routes were then put together in combinations as the receivers and tight ends gathered with the QBs for a session against air. Before each snap, one of the offensive coaches would tell them the coverage - "Cover-2, X is up" - and the offensive guys were supposed to adjust their routes and throws to the coverage. In the example here, the proper read was to hit the underneath receiver, who ran a quick hook from the slot. One evident fact was that Dez Bryant takes every rep like it's the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. While others might jog through a rep when they knew they weren't an option (I'm talking to you, J.C. Copeland!), Bryant ran every route as hard as imaginable, even when no defender was present. The man sets a tone...
Skipping the competitive period that would typically ensue, the players launched into their second full team period of the day. Although this wasn't a situational period per se, they did track down and distance during this work, with Jason Garrett as the final arbiter of ball placement. After a given play, he would call out "Six yards! Second and four!" and the line judge and chain gang would react accordingly. As might be expected, we saw the patterns the receivers and tight ends worked on in the position group drills in evidence during this session. For example, Cole Beasley came free on one of the drag routes that he had run in position group work, making an easy catch and running for a nice gain. The watchwords here: practice is put into action.
Speaking of which, we saw many of the run calls that the O-line and running backs worked on when the receivers were going against air. As has usually been the case, the offense enjoyed a good deal of success int he running game; Lance Dunbar in particular scooted forward for some nice gains. That said, the period's best play was made by Orlando Scandrick, who closely tracked Dez Bryant and then stepped in front of a Weeden pass in the end zone, ending the first team's drive. In recent days, Scandrick has been on fire; as I pointed out in my practice summary, the guy who was very likely the Cowboys' best defensive player in 2013 appears to have elevated his game once more.
Whenever the offensive units were driving, and especially once they got into scoring range, the defensive coaches could be heard exhorting their charges to "go for the ball!" and create a turnover. "Punch it out," they reminded them continually. The second team fared better than the first unit; their drive was punctuated by a spectacular Devin Street TD catch along the left sideline. The rookie wideout leaped up to snag a contested ball over B.W. Webb just along the end zone's left out of bounds markers. The referee hesitated for a brief instant before signaling touchdown.
Next up was another special teams period, which saw Dan Bailey boot a series of straight-and-true field goals from various distances as well as some more work for the punt and punt return teams. I enjoyed watching Jeff Heath in his role as the personal protector on the punt team. He called out the blocking scheme with authority ("over right, over right"), and, when ready, for the ball to be snapped ('hut, hut, go!"), willingly took on middle rushers, and hustled downfield to cover the punt once it was kicked. Heath is the kind of heady, athletic, hustling player one wants in that role.
Earlier in camp, I noted that, when the punt coverage teams initially began work, they would come downfield, keeping their lanes and working to surround the ballcarrier. Then, they would all jump in the air - a puzzling development, to be sure; when have we ever seen a punt defender jump in the air?
Yesterday, I was informed that the reason they jump like that is because it simulates proper tackling form: to jump while moving forward, a player must shuffle his feet, crouch low and then burst upward, just as a good form tackler must. Now that they have progressed further in their punt coverage technique, the players no longer jump - but on Thursday, I'll watch to see how they use their feet and gain leverage just before a tackle.
As I suggested above, we'll probably see a lot more of the second and third team punt return units on Thursday. This was evident in the time spent with those units on Tuesday, with the most obvious example being Devin Street, who took nearly all the punt return reps - a move that assumes that first- and second-team punt returners Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley will get most of their action on offense before calling it a night. Since he's the only kicker in camp, the coaches can't rest Dan Bailey in similar fashion, but backup punter Cody Mandell can - and probably will - kick off, and they may well decide to go for it when in field goal range. After all, it's not like they need to see anything from number 5, the team's most consistent performer.
Once the special teams session was concluded, the team returned to 11-on-11 work. Several plays, in, linebacker Cameron Lawrence made a play (a nice tackle on Ryan Williams) and then went to the sideline, thinking that he wasn't in for the next snap. He soon realized his error, however, and tried to rejoin the defense as the offense was at the line, preparing to hike the ball. Linebackers coach Matt Eberfluss ran forward, yelling, "What the #&%$ are you doing": Safety J.J. Wilcox added a disgusted "C'mon man." As with Orlando Scandrick calling out Jeremy Mincey yesterday, the defensive guys have begun to police each other, monitoring the integrity of the work and correcting mistakes. For a team with "no leadership," this is a positive development.
A couple of observations from this period: First, Brandon Weeden has a good deep arm, but not great deep accuracy. Several times in camp, I have seen him sling beautiful passes deep; rarely have they connected. Next, Joseph Randle is distancing himself from Ryan Williams in the battle for the third running back. I think we were enamored with Williams' draft pedigree, but Randle is the more complete back, and has been the more dynamic runner as well.
The final play of practice was the daily "best on best" session. Given that today's theme was full team work, it stands to reason that the best on best featured the first team offense and defense facing off, running a passing play from the fifteen yard line. Weeden's pass fell short, so the defense won the day. After a group huddle, the end-of-practice blue period saw further work in position groups. Most notable were the tight ends, who lay on the ground and had four balls fired at them in rapid succession. That Mike Pope sure has a lot of tricks up his sleeves....
After a morning walk through on Wednesday, the team will travel to San Diego, where they will have their first opportunity to hit large men in other colored shirts with bad intent. It's high time: during the position group work ,the defensive backs went into the compound that contains the blocking sleds, and worked on their tackling technique. One of the coaches - I think it was Jerome Henderson - said to his guys, "C'mon boys, hit it! Hit it! We're going to be hitting people the day after tomorrow. Hit it!" Just another way in which the team is getting geared up for what's to come on Thursday.