As I noted in my post-practice summary, those of us who follow the team speculated that the Cowboys would have an easier, lighter practice after a physical weekend that culminated in Sunday's blue-white scrimmage. You know, the one that actually included tackling to the ground. That was not the case, however, as the coaches put their players through a nearly-full schedule, complete with boistrous competitive and full team (11-on-11) periods. Because the morning practice was a special teams-only walkthrough, the one exception to a normal practice schedule was the omission of the first special teams period that typically kicks things off.
Today was a veterans rest day for Tony Romo. Since the other quarterbacks then step up a "string," Romo rest days typically indicate a sloppier level of football, largely due to the noticeable drop-off in quarterbacking skill. This was the case to a degree; several observers claimed that this was the sloppiest practice of camp. On the other hand, Brandon Weeden had what I felt to be his best practice of camp; he seemed more in command, decisive and accurate than he had at any other time in the past two weeks.
Even more than Romo taking the afternoon off, the sloppy nature of Monday's work was largely due to the slew of recent injuries that have beset the Cowboys' roster. As many as sixteen players - many of whom are starters or key rotatonal players - missed part or all of practice. In a bit of good news, Ron Leary and Tyler Patmon returned to the field, and participated in at least part of practice (Patmon was held out of the full team sessions), and Terrell McClain, Doug Free and Nick Hayden were all working "on the bands" with one of the trainers on the sidelines, an indication that each is on his way back to the lineup.
Those gains were tempered by the losses of Joseph Randle and Chris Whaley. Randle suffered a rib strain, which means that the top three running backs on the Cowboys' pre-camp depth chart are all out with injuries. The most immediate result of the RB vacuum was that Tyler Clutts - he of zero carries in 2014 - toted the rock quite a bit during the full team 11-on-11 periods. A slightly more down-the-road result will be that Gus Johnson and Lache Seastrunk will get all the snaps on Thursday against the Chargers. In addition, defensive tackle Chris Whaley had to be carted off the field with an apparent ankle injury. That makes him the second defensive lineman carted off in three days. Not the pattern we want to establish.
Instead of starting with the typical special teams period, practice commenced with an 11-on-11 walk-through of the day's playsheet. We saw a goodly amount of 11 (three-wide) and 12 (two tight end) personnel groupings going against various nickle defenses. As is the case with Scott Linehan's offense, it can be hard to distinguish between the two, largely because of how he deploys tight ends, especially Gavin Escobar. Jason Witten is always in the huddle whenever they have a tight end in the game, but they shuttle in other players - Lucky Whitehead, Cole Beasley, Terrance 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, it's 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. As we know, generating turnovers is line item one in a Marinelli defense. Thus it makes sense that the defenders engage in turnover generation drills every practice; it's clear that they are foundational lessons of the highest priority. As a result, I think it would behoove us to review all the various defensive turnover drills. Here goes:
- 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 a defensive assistant holding a pad).
- The safeties work on backpedaling, taking a good angle to a long pass, then high-pointing it for an interception.
- The defensive line practices stripping drills, then works on weaving through four evenly-spaced bags, turning to get to the "quarterback." This exercise not only tests 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.
- The linebackers 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. Later, they work on interceptions at three levels: at chest height, low throws at their feet, and tipped balls that fly up in the air.
After the warm-up was complete, the team broke into various position groups for drills. I could take up many a post describing these drills, which are repetitive from day to day yet, upon closer perusal, different each practice. Today, I want to share a couple of videos that show the defensive line drills, brought to you by the great YumaCactus:
Next up was the first of two competitive periods, where the team broke up into three groups: safeties and linebackers defending against tight ends and running backs running the shorter patterns on their respective route trees (with Dustin Vaughan as the QB); the offensive and defensive lines faced off in the running game (with Jameill Showers handing the ball off to Lache Seastrunk); wide receivers went up against cornerbacks, running short, quick routes out of their own end zone and catching Brandon Weeden passes. This peculiar set-up made sense later, during the full team period, when the offense was tasked to set up shop inside their own one and get a first down.
But before we were treated to 11-on-11 work, Garrett gathered the team for the first "best-on-best" period, also known as the "individual compete." Today, we saw Gavin Escobar go up against J.J. Wilcox, who batted the ball away. Barry Church enjoyed similar success versus James Hanna, getting a hand on the ball just as it arrived along the sideline. Finally, Lucky Whitehead faced off against Corey White, who stuck with him until Whitehead made a nice sharp cut at the top of his route to gain separation and gather in the ball. Thanks to Wilcox and Church, the defense took this one.
As I mentioned above, the opening segment of the subsequent full team period featured an extension of the short yardage work they had implemented on Saturday. Here, the offense was asked to get the ball out from under the shadow of its own end zone. On the second snap, Tyrone Crawford got great penetration and "tackled" Gus Johnson near the goal line, prompting defensive line assistant Ben Bloom to run out on the field, calling, "safety, safety!" Alas, it was not to be; it was waved off by coaches with higher pay grades.
Immediately after that, Johnson had a nice run, finding a big seam off of right tackle and picking up the required first down yardage for the first unit. Other highlights: Davon Coleman (who has looked very good the past few practices) sliced through the line to nail Johnson in the backfield, and Brandon Weeden was "sacked" on a short dropback, which caused Wilcox to pump his arms forcefully (don't for a moment think the defense has forgotten how they were humiliated on the goal line on Saturday).
After this, they moved the line of scrimmage to the middle of the field, and turned to the column on the day's playsheet entitled "11 personnel." The next few minutes saw a variety of 11 and s11 formations, with tight ends Witten, Escobar and Hanna deployed in a variety of ways. I noticed an interesting wrinkle on the other side of the ball: Greg Hardy dropping into coverage while his teammates executed a blitz - a development that I hope lives and dies in camp. Later, I noticed a similar idea played differently: two defensive guys blitzed into the A-gaps, and Ben Gardner peeled back onto a zone (indeed, he ended up making the tackle, after Brandon Weeden hit Nick Harwell on a blitz-beating crosser).
After the full team period, the Cowboys gathered for a 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.
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. 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. But, since I hadn't had a chance to watch the pod drills of late, and the quarterbacks weren't likely to light up the 7-on-7 session, I decided to set up shop close to where the big uglies face off and watched every rep intently.
Before moving on, I must say 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 defensive line position ("three tech! three tech!") to come to the line and have a go.
A few observations from this work:
- Ken Bishop gives Travis Frederick all he can handle more than once every practice.
- The battles between Zack Martin and Tyrone Crawford are awesome, and more often than not result in a draw. Later, Martin fought Greg Hardy to a stand-still.
- Darrion Weems had a couple of strong snaps against Jeremy Mincey
- Later, Mincey had the day's "wow" moment as he managed to knock Tyron Smith back with a hard punch, then cut inside, creating a direct route to the QB. On his next rep, Smith got his hands on Ben Gardner and the big DE was immobilized.
- Randy Gregory absolutely abused R.J. Dill, who is no match for his combination of speed, arm extension and lean.
- Jack Crawford put a nice little inside move on La'el Collins, but the LSU product recovered nicely
- Ryan Russell overpowered Mackenzy Bernadeau. The former Boilermaker looks more formidable inside than outside.
- Ben Gardner got on Laurence Gibson's inside shoulder, but Gibson held his own.
- Ronald Patrick stymied Davon Coleman, keeping him glued to the line of scrimmage. Later, Coleman made a nice move to get inside Frederick
The final "best -on-best" session extended the pass rush drills in front of the entire team, and seemed to feature down-roster players who should get a lot of snaps in San Diego. First, Randy Gregory went up against Darrion Weems, who lined up at left tackle (it was a draw, to my mind). Ryan Russell then battled R.J. Dill (who held his own against the more athletic Russell). Finally, Garrett selected Davon Coleman for the defense and Bernadeau for the offense, with the defense winning, handily, as Coleman put Big Mac on skates.
The first segment of the final team period saw the team revisit the red zone and goal line work they had done earlier late last week. Other than the first possession, the offense struggled to get out of the red zone. Led by Weeden, the starters set up shop on the 25, opening with a completion to Escobar, setting up a nice run by new scatback Tyler Clutts out of 11 personnel. With the goal line in sight, the next play saw O-line cave in their defensive counterparts and complete a three-play scoring drive thusly:
Rod Marinelli is NOT happy Tyler Clutts found the end zone on this play pic.twitter.com/PJNCYd4DDS— Bill Jones (@CBS11BillJones) August 11, 2015
Clutts just rumbled for a TD. I don't know exactly what Corey White and Joel Ross did wrong, but Sean Lee politely asked them "wtf?"— David Helman (@HelmanDC) August 11, 2015
Tyler Clutts 5-TD Run has Jason Garrett & Rod Marinelli cursing the defense. "Are you ---- kidding me," Garrett yells over defensive bust.— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) August 11, 2015
The second team drove to a rather unimpressive field goal. They came out in 12 personnel, and Gus Johnson gained two yards. On the next play, Johnson went into motion to the far left, and a Dustin Vaughan pass bounced off of Nick Harwell. On third down, the timing was off on a screen pass; Johnson either released late or Vaughan didn't wait long enough - either way, he threw before the diminutive back had turned to receive the pass, bringing on the field goal unit.
After a brief appearance by the third team, the coaches brought the first-teamers back in and had them assemble for some goal line work from passing sets. On first down, Corey White did a nice job getting off a block and wrapping up Lucky Whitehead, who had received the ball on a tunnel screen. Then, after a Darrion Weems offsides, Hitchens made a great play, sniffing out a screen and popping Gus Johnson immediately after he had caught the ball and turned upfield. The offense continued to go backwards when they failed to get the next play off. On the drive's final play, they tried the screen pass to Clutts, which led to a field goal attempt.
Vaughan then led the second team back onto the field, whereupon Vaughan hit Reggie Dunn on a quick hitter to the outside. In their goal line work on Saturday, it was evident that the Cowboys want to incorporate more quick outside passes into their goal line packages - and excellent counter to defenses that are sure to collapse inside in response to the threat posed by Dallas' running game. On the next play, Johnson made a nifty move, cutting back to his left and into the end zone.
The culminating situational period saw the offense challenged to score with little enough time on the clock to necessitate a ho-huddle (this year, the mini-scoreboards are kept on the sideline as opposed to the end zones, so we aren't privy to the specifics of the situations under which the players operate). Weeden hit T-Will on the left sideline for a gain of about six and followed that with a completion to Witten over the middle. After a quick timeout, Weeden and Co. ran a draw to Clutts, a peculiar call that necessitated that they run to the line to spike the ball. Apparently, they failed to do so before time expired, as the horn was sounded and we never saw the field goal unit.
I'll leave you with this tidbit: The very end of practice was marked by yet another scuffle, this one between Greg Hardy and an unidentified offensive lineman. It happened at the end of a Tyler Clutts screen pass, and both units rushed into a circle to grab each other's jerseys and engage in a bit of push-n-pull. I'm not at all surprised; the team has been in Oxnard almost two weeks, and today marked the tenth practice. There have now been tussles on three 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...