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Cowboys 2014 Training Camp Practice Summary: Applying Lessons Learned In San Diego

Observations from the Cowboys twelfth training camp practice, during which the team shook off five days accumulated rust in a lively session that featured increased defensive physicality and the sharpest Tony Romo of training camp.

Saturday saw the sharpest Tony Romo of Camp 2014
Saturday saw the sharpest Tony Romo of Camp 2014
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the Cowboys took the field after an extended hiatus away. Think about it: the last time they had a focused practice that was entirely dedicated to skills building and playbook installation was on Monday, as Tuesday's agenda items primarily concerned preparation for San Diego and the last three days were a preseason sandwich. With five days since their last typical camp practice, then, the Cowboys definitely had some rust to shake off, and spent no small portion of the afternoon doing just that: dropping passes, muffing center-QB exchanges, and missing open receivers.

This is not to say that today's practice was a Keystone Cops short. Indeed not; it was a fast, intense practice for the most part - and the defense in particular ramped up the physicality. At one point, Matt Eberfluss and his assistants had the linebackers working on tackling - and more than just taking the proper footwork up to the tackle point, as they had previously in camp. Today (in a move that felt couldn't help but be a reaction to the shoddy tackling in the San Diego game), they had players stand on a big, one-foot thick pad, and others not only wrapped up but brought them to the ground, making sure shoulders went into belts and arms wrapped around thighs.

This emphasis appeared to bleed into the rest of the practice. There was a lot more contact at the end of plays, with defenders not just playing "two-hand" down, but lining up for chest-to-chest contact with ballcarriers. The most notable example came in the second 11-on-11 session, when Cam Lawrence went chest up to Tyler Clutts, creating an audible pop, and knocking Clutts to the turf.

Speaking of physical, today's best on best sessions, with the entire team gathered around, featured pass protection/ blits pickups, immediately after they had done these during the competitive period. We saw Bruce Carter go against DeMarco Murray (a matchup that always makes me yearn for Sean Lee's annual camp battles with Murray) and Kyle Wilber go heads-up on Jason Witten. Both were good battles, and drew lots of cheers and pats from teammates on both sides.

Still, the story of Thursday's game continued today: the defensive side of the ball continued to be a M*A*S*H unit, especially in the defensive backfield and along the defensive line. Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Sterling Moore, Tyler Patmon, Ahmad Dixon, Jakar Hamilton, Ben Gardner, and George Selvie missed all or part of practice. Although Carr, Claiborne and Moore participated in the walk-through portion and some of the less rigorous position drills, they sat out the full team and competitive periods. So, when the team went to nickel in those periods, safety Jeff Heath had to play the nickel back, as he did on Thursday.

Bill Parcells always used to say that many NFL hopefuls, UDFA types in particular, might only get one shot at getting into the league. And that opportunity is incredibly tenuous; it can be derailed by an injury so easily and suddenly. I was reminded of this when I learned that the team released Deshaun Phillips, who came up limping in camp last week after acquitting himself fairly well throughout the offseason. A single misstep during a competitive drill can end the career hopes of a fringe player like Phillips; for his sake, I hope he heals up and gets another shot, either with the Cowboys or another team.

If you will allow me to wax philosophical for a moment: its the time in camp when the desperation begins to build, as guys see their chances at securing a roster spot begin to wane. In a Darwinian environment like the NFL, competition rules all, and the fittest survive - and that's as it should be. Still, that doesn't make it any easier to witness a player's lifelong hopes begin to ebb in the face of the inevitable, like those of an injured antelope on the edge of the herd.

Another thing Eberfluss and Co. had their LBs working on today were their assignment fits. As with tackling, this would seem to be a reaction to what went wrong in San Diego where, to my mind, the primary problem on defense was erratic linebacker play - and especially their inability to fill their gap assignments correctly. Today, while there was admittedly no tackling, Eberfluss' group appeared to be much sounder in their assignments, closing more crisply and precisely on runs during the full team periods.

It wasn't just the linebackers who seemed to step up their games as a way to deal with Thursday's beat-down (and the one subsequently administered by the coaches in the film room); it was the entire defense. As is always the case, the final full team period subjected the day's lessons to situational pressures. Today, the scenario was that the offense go the ball, trailing 20-23, with 1:42 left on the clock. The objective was to use the no-huddle offense to tie or win the game. But he upped the ante by playing out the full clock: if the offense had to punt, the other team then had to run out the clock. The first and second team defenses both played well, forcing one punt and slowing another drive to force a field goal.

I noted in an earlier practice report a drill in which the defensive back seven worked to close quickly on passes completed in underneath zones. Clearly, this has been a point of emphasis after yielding far too much yardage on underneath passes in 2013. As today's offensive package included a fair share of underneath routes, the 11-on-11 sessions accorded me an opportunity to gauge their progress. I'm pleased to report that this year's defense is much better at closing on underneath routes than last year's bunch. On a couple of passes today, receivers caught balls four or five yards deep and were immediately surrounded by linebackers, safeties and even cornerbacks.

Not all the throws were shorties. Given what I've been hearing among the local Dallas media, I decided to pay extra special attention to Tony Romo, and in particular to his intermediate and deep passes. I was pleased to see him zip several 17-20 yard passes, with a low arc and good to great accuracy. What was more pleasing, however, was his deep ball. Perhaps it was the extended rest, but he threw several nice deep passes (albeit without the same velocity as his intermediate throws). On back-to-back plays, he made good, accurate deep tosses to Terrance Williams and then Gavin Escobar, eliciting this Tweet from our favorite son:

Ahhh, yes. A bit of perspective is always a much-needed elixir for folks too-long immersed in the training camp bubble...


Stay tuned, loyal readers; I'll have a fuller, more detailed report on the day's action later tonight/ early tomorrow morning (depending on your time zone)...

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