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Cowboys 2015 Training Camp Practice Summary: Prepping For The Chargers

Observations from the Cowboys’ eleventh training camp practice, which saw them engage in a lot more full team material in preparation for Thursday's preseason game in San Diego.

The next time we see Byron Jones, he'll have a Star on his helmet
The next time we see Byron Jones, he'll have a Star on his helmet
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With the Cowboys' first preseason game against the Chargers squarely in their sights, they 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: 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. 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. 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.

It's possible to tell when the Cowboys are prepping for an opponent (as opposed to working through the playbook) because the assistant coaches will stand in front of the scout team and hold up a card that shows them what they should be running and how to run it (for example, a card that shows the Chargers defense, which the Cowboys defenders haven't seen on film). Training camp affords coaches a football luxury: opportunities for teaching, both in groups and individually, that the in-season schedule doesn't afford. In fact, today's camp session offered the best of both worlds: teaching and prepping for an opponent. As camp moves forward (and the team builds toward the all-important third preseason game), the players should see this ratio continue to shift, favoring game prep over teaching.

As usual, all three units took turns in 11-on-11. Today, however, it appeared that the second and third teams got a greater slice of the pie than usual, as it's those players who will get the vast majority of snaps against the Chargers. The biggest ingredients in that pie will be three-receiver and two-tight-end sets; today, by far the most frequently deployed personnel groupings were 11 (and s11) and 12 personnel - with the defense matching up mostly in nickel. Given that the Cowboys opened camp by working on the nickle (largely in blitz situations), and then proceeded to no-huddle and hurry-up situations (also predominately nickle), this stands to reason: the young Cowboys are gonna run the plays they know.

But older Cowboys also participated, to a degree. After a rest day, Tony Romo practiced, but didn't participate in the first team prep for Chargers. Neither did Joseph Randle, Jason Witten, Tyron Smith, Doug Free or Dez Bryant. With six starters - and arguably the four best players on the team - expected not to dress on Thursday, it looks like the Cowboys might, ahem, struggle a bit to score 30 points. On defense, the healthy scratch will be Sean Lee, who will be joined on the sideline by starters Rolando McClain, Nick Hayden, Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr. Visions of 2013's opening preseason game, the stultifying 3-0 win over the Raiders, are dancing in my head...

Although he's not likely to play against the Chargers, Joseph Randle returned to practice one day after straining his oblique and sitting out the remainder of the afternoon. Of course, all the assembled media waited breathlessly to see him test his strained oblique when running the gauntlet:

Also back at practice was DeMarcus Lawrence. For Ol' Rabble, this was a huge relief; I had been touting Lawrence as the team's most improved player and it would have been a shame if he had been derailed for any length of time, especially given that his camp was cut short last year due to a foot injury. And, just as he returned to the fold, almost as if by magic, this emerged to substantiate my assessment that he deserves the MIP award:

In another bit of good injury news, Darren McFadden looks ready to return. He spent the morning with his shoulder pads and helmet on, working hard with trainers. The team has said he'll return on Saturday, thus offering the very real possibility that we'll see all three of the leading candidates in uniform for the first time this weekend. I'll be there with my podcast Partner, Landon McCool, and we'll be sure to give you the skinny as we see it.

In the absence of these three, Tyler Clutts ran as second team RB,behind Gus Johnson, who will start on Thursday, and in front of Lache Seastrunk. It will be interesting to see whether the backs running second and third team this morning end up doing the same against the Chargers as well. Clutts has acquitted himself well running from single back sets; will he do so on Thursday? If the moribund Cowboys offense can get near the goal line in San Diego, it will be interesting to see whether Clutts serves as the goal line back for a Cowboys team still searching for that short yardage hammer.

A defensive note: Greg Hardy has been controlled by Tyron Smith for the better part of camp. On Monday, however, he made a nice move on T-Rex, swatting his hands away before Number 77 could get them on him and thus render him immobile. Today, he followed that up with a nice couple of reps, including this one, where Hardy again got Smith's hands off of him, allowing him to get inside pressure:

Smith has dominated the battles with Hardy thus far; watching them, it has been difficult to determine to what degree this was a product of Smith's awesomeness. Hardy faring better in recent days serves as a necessary reminder that he has been away from football for a long time, and still needs to round into form. If he can start giving Smith fits, I shudder to think what he'll do versus the mere mortals who play offensive line around the league.


And, finally, Thursday will mark the first time the rookies get to wear silver pants and have a star on their helmets. For Byron Jones and the other top draftees, it's a foregone conclusion that they will be donning the star on Sundays. For other players, this is a critical step in getting to wear that precious star during the regular season. Good luck young'uns; may you realize your dreams and earn your way onto the roster!

Follow me @rabblerousr

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