As I noted in my post-practice summary last night, Sunday afternoon's affair could be characterized by several general narratives: renewed work on red zone and goal line material; a heavy dose of runs, particularly between the tackles; a chippy defensive effort; the rise of Gavin Escobar and Devin Street; and an injury (not thought to be serious) to Byron Jones. Most of all, however, it was defined by a steadily mounting physicality, pressure and purpose and a "ramping up" of Saturday's intensity.
Sunday's practice opened with a special teams period that saw Rich Bisaccia and his assistants putting the team through their kickoff coverage and return paces. As with all the special teams units, it's been a real treat to watch Bisaccia operate; he has the ability to diagnose problems from amidst chaos (I certainly cannot take in or understand a given kick return until I watch it several times, from multiple angles), and make quick corrections, and he has taken the various teams units from a very rudimentary step one to the point where they are maintaining good technique, awareness and spacing almost by second nature (albeit at a walk-through pace, and without contact). If Bisaccia is a choreographer, kickoff coverage is the complex number that closes out the first act.
After the opening special teams session, the team gathered on the far field for an 11-on-11 walk-through. During this session, I noticed a return of a schematic wrinkle that I had noticed in some of the earliest camp practices: Linehan deployed his guys in 11 personnel (one RB, one TE), and the lone running back, often Lance Dunbar, would line up in the backfield and then motion out wide, to the end of the formation.
Typically, the player at the end of the formation before the RBs went in motion was Cole Beasley; the motion thus turned him from a flanker into a slot receiver, his bread and butter. Previously, when we saw this motion, the running back would run a pattern or stand and turn to receive the rudiments of a bubble screen, which functioned essentially as a handoff into space. With this package, however, Beasley often seemed to be the primary option, running almost exclusively slants and shallow crosses - plays that accord with the shallow red-zone work with which the practice concluded.
After covering the day's playsheet at half speed, the team jogged around a goal post and commenced the extensive, lower-body-and-core focused stretching session that has become one of the hallmarks of this year's camp. That said, there was a change-up in the way this was undertaken. Previously, the team would line up on the near field, along one sideline, sitting down there to stretch (static stretching) and then rising to walk-stretch (ballistic stretching) en route to the other sideline where they would then engage in a different static stretch. Today, they adhered to the same static-ballistic combo, but lined up on the yard lines and moved towards the goal posts - perhaps in preparation for pregame stretches, which will have to be done in this manner.
After the lower-body stretch (which lasts about ten minutes), pat-n-go, ball security and defensive pursuit drills that stand as an official prequel to practice, the team divvied up and headed to their respective areas of the field for position group work. As camp has worn on, the amount of time apportioned for this technique-specific work has diminished as the coaches have carved out more time for the competitive and full-team periods. Although I didn't have my stopwatch out, today's position group work felt a bit a bit more protracted than has been the recent trend; I wondered to what degree this was because the team is fixin' to spend the next two days scrimmaging against the Rams, when they will have little time (and, frankly, insufficient space) to break down into discrete units for any meaningful time.
The various position group drills were familiar to anyone who has attended camp practices: work on maintaining a base while extending and punching, then detailed double-team and second-level blocking for the OL; foot quickness and agility drills for the running backs, who then join the QBs to work on footwork for handoffs; agility and catching drills for the wideouts; stacking and shedding and run fits for the linebackers; footwork at the line and turning and running with receivers for the CBs; backpedaling and turning to track the ball for safeties; the D-line works on running the bags.
Today offered a new development in this schedule: the receivers and corners joined forces to work on tight coverage/ getting off of tight coverage. They would go one by one, with their respective position coaches offering instruction after each rep. And, as is usually the case in such work, the starters took the first reps. This meant that, with Dez Bryant, Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr out, the first rep each time around showcased Terrance Williams and Mo Claiborne. The result was a series of good battles between two men who have enjoyed strong offseasons. Soon thereafter, in the second wrinkle, all the offensive skill position groups gathered to run pass patterns against air.
It was during this session that we noticed George Farmer, the USC product to whom the Cowboys gave a sizeable signing bonus after the draft to convince him to come to Dallas, had been released after being invisible for the duration of camp. He was replaced by former TCU receiver David Porter, another receiverer the Cowboys were interested in during draft season (here's a "2015 draft target" article looking at late-round WR options that included him). He wasn't hugely impressive for the Horned Frogs (in his best season, he caught only 26 balls for 435 yards and five TDs), but Porter has good size (6'0", 205), which he used to great advantage in his first practice with his new team, running good routes and making a handful of athletic catches - and, in the process, made more noticeable plays in a single afternoon than Farmer did in just over two weeks.
Next up was the day's first competitive period. As might be expected, we immediately saw the O-line apply the work that Pollack and his crew put in with them in the position group period as they lined up against the D-line for the run period. Today they were joined by Lache Seastrunk and Geoff Swaim, since the daily playsheet featured several edge/ outside runs. While this was happening, the other running backs faced off against the safeties and linebackers, who strove to cover the RB route tree. In the near field's end zone, we were treated to the most competitive position group work of the day: tight ends Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar and the wide receivers against corners in red zone and goal line work.
It was here, during this session, that it first became clear that Sunday would be declared National Escobar Recognition Day. The day's featured package seemed to have been designed almost exclusively for Number 89, not only because he appeared to be the primary receiver on most of the snaps, but also because many of the routes he ran and the placement of the throws seemed designed specifically to take advantage of his superior height and superb hands. Not surprisingly, he had a busy and highlight-filled afternoon. In several instances, he made beautiful contested catches with a defender - often Byron Jones (more on him below) - draped all over him. For years, we have been talking about Escobar being a match-up nightmare in the end zone; today's work served to reinforce this notion - and to suggest that Scott Linehan and the offensive braintrust plan to use him more in that capacity.
Romo with nice jumpball that Escobar brought down over top of Corey White in compete period. Romo liked the catch, pointed at 89 after play— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 16, 2015
On the defensive side, this was the period in which it became clear that Byron Jones (and his positional dopplegänger, Corey White) was lining up against tight ends on every red zone and goal line snap. As I just suggested, he was excellent (as was White) on several snaps where the offense connected. In several instances, I turned to my podcast partner, Landon McCool, to remark, "I'm not sure what more a defender can do on that play..." Sometimes, one guy just makes a great play.
However, the larger takeaway from witnessing this is that the common thread running through Jones and White's various positions (corner, nickle linebacker, safety) is that they line up against a tight end (he was lined up against Jason Witten on the play in which he got injured). It appears that one of the line items at the top of Rod Marinelli's to-do list is to find a way to combat the gallery of elite tight ends the Cowboys will face in 2015 (the top names, of course, are Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, but they'll also grapple with Carolina's Greg Olsen, the Giants' Larry Donnell, Buffalo's Charles Clay, and the Eagles' Zack Ertz - all of whom were in the top 15 in tight end receptions in 2014). With their length, size and athleticism, Jones and White will be critical in slowing down what has been the defense's kryptonite in the last two campaigns.
Fittingly, Jones was featured in the first "best on best" session of the afternoon; he faced off against Terrance Williams and batted away a Tony Romo back shoulder throw; next up was a battle of the little guys, with Tyler Patmon denying Cole Beasley (to be fair the ball was overthrown), but being flagged for getting too handsy (it was a fair call, despite Jerome Henderson's extended jawing at the official as the players returned to their gathered teammates. Finally, Escobar capped his stellar session with a leaping catch over Jeff Heath in the right corner of the end zone. To his credit, Romo put the ball where only Number 89 could catch it.
The second full team period was next, and the first segment was all running all the time. It was here that the defense was notably physical, commencing from the second snap, a toss left wherein Tyler Clutts of all people, the defense had its way, shutting down running lanes and closing quickly when holes did open.This prompted McCool to say, "Do you think they miss Tyron Smith?" I think they missed Tyron Smith ...hit a bit more forcefully than might be considered ideal. From that point on, the level of physicality escalated steadily for the remainder of practice. For the most part, the defense "won" the period; with the exception of a nice edge run to the right side by
In spite of this, we noticed quite clearly how easily Joseph Randle can make subtle little cuts at speed. Instead of taking a step to slow down, it's as if he can slow down instantly, hesitate for a microsecond to allow blocks to develop or for the chaotic pattern to shift favorably, then quickly get up to full speed again, all the while making himself "skinny" to get through tight creases. I have no idea whether or not the Great Joseph Randle Experiment will end up being a success; I do know that he has gifts as a runner that his predecessor didn't.
The subsequent special teams period saw the team work on specific aspects of the field goal. Since Dan Bailey wasn't kicking today (his bionic leg needs rest days, too), the FG unit worked on blocking, snapping and holding. They also tried a little derring-do: on one try, holder Chris Jones popped up, rolled out to his right, and tried to hit Jason Witten, running a short crosser on that side. Jonses's looping pass was high and went to Witten's back shoulder, and The Senator couldn't hold on. A nice option from Rich Bisaccia's bag of tricks; the question is whether or not Jones throws well enough to merit further practice.
The field goal period was followed by punt return work. The special teams units have remained largely unchanged throughout camp (I think the most apt label for Oxnard 2015 is "Camp Consistency"), but there is one very interesting development that must be remarked upon: backup quarterback Jameill Showers is now running with the first team on all four special teams units (punt and punt return; kick and kick return). Sure, this might be because of injuries to other teams regulars, but I hear that Bisaccia loves the kid (and what's not to love; all reports are that he's smart, focused and grounded) and that his appearance on teams is not a goof, but a real test. Consider: how helpful would it be for the Cowboys' third quarterback to make actual contributions on gamedays. It would be like dressing an extra man each week.
Next Garrett and the coaches broke the squad into two groups for the second competitive period, featuring a 7-on-7 session (which, of course, is a misnomer, since it's typically 5-on-5) for the handsome, skinny guys while the big uglies were gathered in a circle, going head-to-head on pod drills. Given Tyron Smith's absence, as well as the fact that starting DTs Nick Hayden and Tyrone Crawford were DNPs, I spent my time watching the 7-on-7 work. During this session, the offense was aligned in spread formations, usually four wide - of course, who these four were was subject to change; there was almost always at least one tight end on the field, and often a running back would go in motion to the edge, drawing a defender with him and transforming the flanker into a slot receiver.
While this was a lively session, it wasn't as physical as the earlier full team run period. The physicality was turned up a notch soon thereafter, however, during the second "best on best" session, which saw a reprise of the OL-DL pod drills. First up was a match-up between Ken Bishop putting a good initial bull rush on Ronald Leary, who managed to counter and hold him off; next, Ben Gardner abused Ronald Patrick, making a quick move to get inside him; finally, Laurence Gibson had what all observers held to be Laurence Gibson's finest hour: he not only stonewalled Lavar Edwards but proceeded to drive him back a good fifteen yards while his offensive teammates whooped in celebration.
The final item on the daily schedule was the full team period. The first segment saw the first team offense in fine form: a Joe Randle run and an intermediate post to Witten got the ball across midfield. These were followed by a Tyler Clutts run and a pretty Romo-to-Street slant between two defenders. The second team followed that up with a lightning-fast drive, the highlight of which was a beautiful - I meant Bee-You-Ti-Ful! - Brandon Weeden deep ball to Nick Harwell along the left sideline.
These series led us to the final scenario. As I have mentioned in earlier reports, Garrett wants to use these culminating sessions to prepare his charges for game situations and conditions. Today's work concluded with a nail-biting scenario: the Cowboys offense took possession at the opponent's 25, trailing 24-17, with 48 seconds on the clock. In previous scenarios, a field goal would win or tie the game; today, they had to score a touchdown (and hit the now-longer extra point) to force overtime. After Romo completed a crosser to Terrence Williams for a gain of about four, he hit Devin Street on a lovely post for the touchdown. After a successful snap and hold, the game was "tied."
The second team took over for their attempt at the same scenario, starting the drive with two incompletions, one to each corner of the end zone. On third down, Weeden threw a shallow underneath route to Tyler Clutts, who crashed into Jeff Heath, starting a skirmish. For his part, Clutts said, "It’s good to see feistiness. I would be a little disappointed if some of that didn’t go on." Given that this is the part of camp where the players, as J.J. WIlcox noted after practice "wake up on the wrong side of the bed" every day, I'd expect Clutts not to be disappointed, as we'll see a couple more wild scrums the next two days.
Once the field had been clearer, the second team failed to score, as a fourth down Brandon Weeden pass fell short. So, they moved on to the final segment of the day: a goal line situation wherein the first unit had the ball on first-and-goal at the eight yard line, with nine seconds remaining and the same 24-17 score. Like a boss, Romo immediately threw a perfect back shoulder fade to Escobar for an easy touchdown. The pass was perfect, placed exactly where Escobar, and only Escobar, could catch it. Frankly, no other quarterback on the roster can make that throw - or, at least, not with any consistency. The second team fared well, too: Weeden rolled to his right and hit Lucky Whitehead in the end zone for a nice score. The third team? Dustin Vaughan threw a back shoulder fade to a receiver running a slant, and the practice concluded on an ignominious note.
After a final stretch, another weekend was in the books. Previous weekends have been characterized by packed houses followed by off days or low turnouts. Knowing these were on the horizon has given the last two Sundays a somber feeling as practice has ended, the sensation that we are witnessing the end of a (very short) era. Today, however, this was not the case; as we filed out to our cars, there was a sense of anticipation for what is to come: two days of scrimmages against the Rams (and their superb defensive line). Great teams are forged in the crucible of competition; the next two days will offer a new, different, and necessary form of competition. I'm very much looking forward to it