After the typical pre-practice routine during which players stroll onto the field in twos and threes, then mill about, stretching, drilling, and chatting, the horn sounded to mark the official start of practice, and everything quickly shifted into high gear. The players and attendant personnel launched into the first item on the day's agenda: a special teams period in which the focus was kickoff returns. They worked intensively on the basic issues: spacing, timing, executing combination blocks. Rich Bisaccia and the other coaches broke the kick return team up into two groups: the front men, who retreat some fifteen yards at the kick, gather and then block, and the back guys, who gather to form a loose wall of blockers for the return men.
As was the case in yesterday's other pre-pads practice, the team then gathered for its sole 11-on-11 period of the day, which was essentially an uptempo walk-through, where the players went through the day's short playsheet at a pretty pace. After this, we saw the same leg-and-lower-core-focused stretching session that has been a practice staple since Oxnard 2014's soft tissue revolution. After working their hamstrings, quads, lower backs and glutes, the players took separate fields; the offensive guys to run through the daily pat-and-go session, quickly followed by what Garrett refers to as the "ball period": the offense quickly runs plays against air at speed, while he defensive units work on turnover-generation drills.
As I noted in my practice summary, I opted to follow the defense almost exclusively today. In part, this was because Tony Romo missed practice with an eye infection. But more than that, I have been looking forward to seeing how all the new offseason additions would look up close and personal. What follows, then, is a blow-by-blow account of my afternoon on the far field, where the defensive guys, wearing their blue jerseys, set up camp. It was clear that today's lesson plan was taken from the chapter on the nickle; the vast majority of material we saw - even when the various position groups worked separately - involved two linebackers and three corners.
When position drills resumed, we saw defensive tackles working with linebackers to work on correct timing and spacing when running blitzes out of the nickle: the D-linemen would fire off and "occupy" a man, while the LBs hesitated just a split second before running up a specific gap. One one rep, DeMarcus Lawrence crashed down on the guy playing OT, creating a crease for Sean Lee to run to the quarterback (Leon Lett, holding a ball at the end of a stick) unabated. Next they worked on having one of the 'backers dole out a bit of "sugar," faking a blitz and then peeling off to drop into coverage. By pairing these two exercises, the coaching staff helped ensure that, to opposing O-linemen, both appear to be exactly the same - thus potentially sowing confusion.
Last year, one of the areas in which the Cowboys registered the most marked improvement was in tackling, especially in the defensive back seven. Some of this must be attributed to the increased emphasis placed in camp last year on breaking down and wrapping up properly. Judging from the first two days, it appears this emphasis will continue; the defensive backs are being drilled fairly extensively in exercises that ask them to break down and to tackle. As the font seven worked on fits, the defensive backs worked on backpedaling, then "clicking and closing" to make a tackle on a teammate holding a pad (which they would do twice). Later, the coaches brought out the big yellow balls that allow the defenders to simulate getting low and wrapping up without actually tackling another player at speed.
We first saw this in action immediately after the ball period, in a drill that asked the defensive backs to backpedal then close as a coach bounced a ball towards them as they squared on the bouncing ball, wrapping their arms around it as they would a ballcarrier. Then, a more advanced version of the exercise (and one that incorporated another drill in which CBs practiced hemming a receiver along the sidelines) involved dropping to follow a receiver on a "go route" while watching the quarterback, who would occasionally throw into the flat to a second "receiver." When this happened, the corner would change direction and close on the receiver, wrapping up a yellow ball bounced in his direction as he got within striking range.
When working with the defensive backs on a breaking down drill, the secondary coaches told them to "set your angle first" - to set up on the offensive player's shoulder to force him to cut towards, rather than away from, pursuit. The key for the DBs was to avoid over-committing when setting their angle, which makes it easy for the ballcarrier to cut in his direction of choice. Later, corners worked on closing quickly on bubble screens while safeties ran through a drill that we've seen at the NFL Combine: a coach holds out a ball and moves it in different directions; the player has to backpedal and then "click and close" when the ball's direction changes - while keeping his weight over his feet.
As this was taking place, the linebackers worked on a "stack and shed" drill wherein they squared up to a single blocking sled (intended to signify an offensive linemen trying to get to the second level), lifting it high and then throwing it down (to "shed" the would-be blocker), getting in position to get low to secure a ball carrier. Later, they worked on a similar exercise with live bodies instead of dummies. In this one, they practiced a bit of trickery; Matt Eberflus and his assistants instructed the LBs to "get on the front side of the block," flashing a view of helmet on the blocker's outside shoulder - which is the runner's key to cut inside - just before falling back and cutting back the other way, to where the back was now running:
The defensive line coaches brought out the heavy bags, and the D-linemen practiced weaving through four bags to get to a fifth bag, which represented a (conveniently statuesque) quarterback. Later, this was compressed; the four bags were tightly bunched, and the D-linemen had to navigate them quickly, swatting each aside and weaving through them. This appeared to be much more challenging, and required a nasty combination of strength and quickness. Because the close proximity of the four bags requires players to play with coordinated hands and feet, it serves to separate the proverbial men from the boys. Indeed, Greg Hardy, whose hands and feet were in concert, attacked the drill beautifully, matching choppy steps with quick, powerful swats. On the other hand, Chris Whaley was out of synch and, because his hands and feet weren't well coordinated, struggled to move the bags with much force, eventually falling over the fourth bag:
Later, the defensive linemen worked on reading their keys while double-teamed. The key ingredient here was to avoid over-committing too early. The D-linemen had to churn his legs to hold the double team and then explode through it to the ballcarrier (a coaching assistant), who was instructed to take one of three possible routes. To get in position to make the tackle, the D-linemen had to drive their feet to maintain position and then, when the ballcarrier made his move, explode in his direction, either to make the play or to cut off a potential cutback lane. On one rep, Tyrone Crawford held his ground, then used a powerful rip move to disengage quickly and swallow up the assistant with the ball.
As the big boys grunted and sweated, the linebackers worked in pairs (remember today's agenda was the nickle) on their zone pass drops against four-man pass patterns. The idea was that they should run with the inside receiver to a point, before passing him off to an imaginary secondary defender once he had cleared their zone. The challenge was to stay underneath the receiver to cut off the passing lane while not getting so deep as to allow the other receiver on that side, running a pattern in the flat, to have too much room to run after making the reception.
As this was happening, the corners worked on picking up receivers who were deployed in "trips" formations. Secondary coach Jerome Henderson stood behind his guys, and signaled to each of the "receivers' the pattern he was to run. The corners were then to pick up the receivers as they broke into their patterns. This required man-to-man coverage, which brings up an interesting point: the fact that the corners drilled on so many elements of man-to-man coverage suggests that we may be seeing a higher percentage of man-to-man calls than we've witnessed in recent years.
Next up was the second, briefer special teams period, where Bisaccia and his crew assembled the kick return elements that had been operating on separate fields at the start of practice. It was fascinating watching the coaches implement a very complex operation, with many moving parts. Here, Bisaccia frequently stopped the action to work on details with one of the various side of the return team: technique, timing, spacing or placement. As of today, your primary kickoff return candidates are Lance Dunbar, J.J. Wilcox, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. Later, we saw Lucky Whitehead take a couple reps.
Again, as was mentioned in the practice summary, one thing that was different from Thursday's agenda was that they concluded Friday's affair by assembling what had previously been disparate units. In the final phase of Friday's practice, the defense, which had worked in discrete position groups thus far throughout all of the short camp (outside of 11-on-11 walk-through work), gathered as a full unit for the first time, deploying in nickle, and facing off against an offensive skill position group populated by the coaching support staff (i.e., the young guys who can still run), with Jason Garrett playing quarterback. This served as glimpse at future practices, which will build to the final 11-on-11 session of the day and figure as the final exam on the day's lessons. Here, after two days of fundamentals, the coaching staff gave the players an arena to put them into practice.
Soon thereafter, another horn sounded, and the players gathered around Garrett in the middle of the field, then took their positions for a final team stretch. After this, we were treated to the second "blue period," during which down-roster types receive special instruction.This, of course, is where tight ends coach Mike Pope breaks out his crazy drill de jour. Today, it involved each TE laying down under a pile of pads, then shooting up, shedding the pads to make a catch.
As this was drawing the attention of the assembled media, Frank Pollack and Marc Columbo put their offensive linemen through some curious "punch-out-while-maintaining-a-base" drills (these were covered in detail in the practice summary). Here, in an exercise designed to test keeping a good base while punching out, they took turns standing with each foot on a gel-filled "doughnut," with their arms joined to more resistance bands, as they tossed a medicine ball back and forth with another O-lineman:
As I watched these, I was reminded of something I wrote at the end of last year's second camp practice report:
After only two practices, this blue period has quickly become my favorite moment of each camp practice - not because it signals the end of the practice, but because of its idyllic power: These are quiet moments after a storm, which take place as the low, late-afternoon light produces long shadows and bounces its rays off all the players' helmets. It's simple, and quiet and beautiful. I'm hoping that it continues to be a defining characteristic of this year's Oxnard sojourn.
Here's to it...!