Headed into Monday's practice, it was widely speculated that the Cowboys would have an easier, lighter afternoon, coming on the heels of a physical weekend that culminated in a Blue-White Scrimmage that featured tackling to the ground. That was not the case, however, as Jason Garrett and his coaches put the team through a rigorous study schedule, complete with physical, competitive, and full team (11-on-11) periods. And the players appeared game for the task at hand, giving him energetic, if not focused, work.
Today's script consisted of a further review of the lessons the players had been taught and put into practice over the last week: nickle, red zone, and goal line. The position group work was fairly generic, but the competitive periods and full team 11-on-11 sessions all showcased familiar material. I saw the interior blitzes that Rod Marinelli opted to open camp with, a preponderance of 11 and s11 personnel (from early last week) and some heavy sets, both when operating in the shadow of their own goal line, and when on the precipice of a score. All of this should be seen as simultaneous review and prep work, as the team gets ever closer to their first real test, the mid-term exam if you will - the game against the Chargers in San Diego.
Speaking of being on the precipice (i.e., the goal line), the opening segment of the final team period featured a blending of redzone and goal line work (simply put, the redzone material transitioned into the goal line material once the offense neared the goal line).
Red zone: first team scores in three plays, the last of which was a Tyler Clutts touchdown run in which the offensive line collapsed the defense so utterly that it looked as if Clutts was running into a forward-moving pass pocket. On the bottom of the pile, Tyrone Crawford could be seen banging the end zone turf in frustration. As might be expected, the defensive coaches were apoplectic; Rod Marinelli unloaded a wheelbarrow full of choice cusses, and Jason Garrett could be heard yelling out, "Are you F---ing kidding me?!" in the defense's direction.
Lest we begin tearing our hair out in consternation at the defense's inability to stop even a faint breeze, it's important to remember that, at almost exactly this juncture last year, we were making similar proclamations about the offensive line's dominance. Then, the open question was what this meant: was the offense this good or the defense this bad? With a year to observe both units, I think it's safe to say that the offense is very, very good (as scary as it might be to consider, the offensive line should be better than it was last year). Thus, the defense being beaten, especially on the goal line, where the Cowboys' big uglies are most likely to succeed, should be seen more as an encomium for the O-line than an indictment of the defense.
This reminds me of something I've been wanting to share for several days now: nobody on the defense likes Tyler Clutts. Let me be clear: Clutts is a very likeable guy off the field; all reports are that he one of the nicest guys on the team. My theory is that, as an athletically limited dude, he's had to make his way by being a bit more edgy and physical in the way he practices. There have been several instances wherein he has been involved in after-the-whistle contact, and he was at the center of the end-of-practice tussle on Saturday, when he took issue with defenders giving Joseph Randle a little extra push at the end of a big gainer. Today's camp skirmish again involved Clutts; at the end of a decent gain off of right tackle, all the players on the field got into a big pushing scrum, while Clutts lumbered into the end zone.
One of the reasons Clutts - who didn't have a single carry in 2014 - was receiving an unusually heavy load today was that Joseph Randle was sidelined with an oblique strain early in the practice. Before his injury, he made some nice plays in the first competitive period, when the running backs and tight ends went head-to-head with the linebackers and safeties. Because of the injury, it looks like Gus Johnson and Lache Seastrunk will be the only options on Thursday in San Diego. Going forward, the Cowboys will have to determine whether or not they'll need another runner to get through practice when they return in earnest on Saturday.
Of course, the hope is that Darren McFadden and/ or Lance Dunbar will be hale and hearty by then...
This bad news was tempered by some good: Brandon Weeden had his best practice of camp. Part of this may have been the simple fact that he worked with the first teamers (hmmmm, maybe it's better to have Tyron Smith blocking your blind side than R.J. Dill...), but more than that was the fact that he seemed more in command, decisive and accurate than he had at any other tine in the past two weeks. Given my jeremiad on Dustin Vaughan in yesterday's post-practice summary, it was at least somewhat comforting to see Weeden acquit himself well with the guys he'll have to suit up with were Tony Romo to miss any time.
On the defensive side of the ball, there was also a mixture of good and bad news. Let's start with the good: Devon Coleman and Ken Bishop had excellent practices, and have been coming on for about a week now. Last year, we noted their physical similarities; both are squatty players built low to the ground. Bishop is the more powerful of the two; Coleman has more quickness. Both of them have been giving Travis Frederick a tough time in one-on-one pod drills of late. Today, Bishop got low, driving Frederick backwards. For his part, Coleman used his quickness to gain the edge of Frederick's shoulder, forcing Number 72 to play catch-up for the rest of the snap.
The other good news concerns what I and my mates agreed was the day's "wow moment." In the one-on-one pass rush session, Jeremy Mincey faced off against Tyron Smith. The scouting report on Smith is that once he gets his hands on you and extends his arms, it's over; indeed, this has proven to be the case throughout camp, as rusher after rusher has been trapped and immobilized in Smith's big mitts. Knowing this, Mincey managed to get inside Tyron's arms, shocking him with a quick punch and knocking him back. As the off-balance Smith staggered backwards, Mincey cut inside for what would assuredly have been a sack. Mincey is not the most athletic of the Cowboys defensive linemen by any stretch of the imagination, but he's savvy and powerful, and makes plays. He's a valuable asset.
And he'd better be, because DeMarcus Lawrence, the man who I consider to be the most improved player in camp, reportedly tweaked his back during the one-on-one pass drills near the end of practice. It's not thought to be too severe; he actually went back in and played a few snaps during the subsequent full team period. Still, it added to the now growing list of starters and quality contributors who are standing on the sidelines. After the Blue-White scrimmage, I wrote that the Cowboys were enjoying much better health this year than they had in past years, when as many as eighteen players were unable to participate due to injury. A more formal count of the 2015 injury list shows that sixteen Cowboys were DNPs on Monday.
Sure, many of these are precautionary moves, sidelining guys who would be full participants during an in-season game week. Still, the old adage once again proves true: football hurts. As a result, a less than complete roster will take the field in San Diego on Thursday to take their mid-term exam versus the Chargers.
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)...