After an opening ceremony in which the Mayor of Oxnard was recruited to play middle linebacker, the Cowboys began the season's first padded practice by resuming Friday's classwork on kickoff returns, revisiting yesterday's lessons with further, more detailed teaching of the same principles: proper spacing, alignment and assignment. Since today's morning walk-through was special teams-only, Rich Bisaccia's charges had advanced considerably in a short period. Whereas on Friday, Bisaccia and his fellow coaches stopped frequently to break down the kick return into discrete, digestible units, on Saturday afternoon they were able to run the entire affair, and the first, second and third teams all had multiple opportunities.
It's early, but a special teams core is beginning to emerge. The first team kickoff coverage group looked like this:
And the first team kick return group looked like this:
A look at these two charts, plus the punt teams, which I will detail later, suggests that the core 'teamers at this juncture are Danny McCray, Damien Wilson, Jeff Heath, Andrew Gachkar, James Hanna, and Kyle Wilber. It will be interesting (and, I hope instructive) to see who fills these positions during the later preseason games, as that will be an indication of roster movement over the course of camp.
The special teams session was followed by the first of the afternoon's three full team periods, in which we caught a glimpse of what would prove to be the day's workload: a heavy dose of basic zone runs, some elemental route combinations, and a variety of personnel groupings on offense, and a lot of nickle and dime deployments and blitz packages on defense. Yesterday, this was a fairly spirited affair, since it was the only competition the players would see all day; today, it was the walk-through we've come to expect, one in which players bottled their competitive juices for later in the day.
It was this session in which we were treated to Corey White deploying as a de facto linebacker in a dime defense. As such, we saw him line up over the A-gap on several plays, sometimes blitzing and on other occasions "sugaring" blitzes. On one notable play, he jumped back into coverage to cover Jason Witten running up the seam, then peeled off to undercut A.J. Jenkins and make an athletic interception of a Tony Romo pass. I noted in a previous report that the Cowboys have assembled a group of tall, versatile corners. White may be fifth on the depth chart, but he looks to have an important role (or set of roles) to play this season.
After the daily warm-up period consisting of the pat-and-go (during which the O-line got together for a series of hip rotations and lower back stretches - muscles that they would be working on the afternoon), and a "ball period" focusing on ball security (offense) and generating and returning takeaways (defense), the team then embarked upon an extended stretching period, in which (in preparation for the increased leg use that full contact demands), the players spent the bulk of the allotted time on lower body stretching. An interesting note: all the quarterbacks not named Romo participated in the gauntlet that constituted the ball security drills, taking "hits" from bags held by teammates.
Once properly warmed up and limber, the team broke into position groups for the only time on the afternoon. As I tracked the defensive side yesterday, I concentrated on the offensive group today. The quarterbacks drilled proper footwork: an exercise in which they moved between a series of low bags while an assistant swatted at the ball simulated moving in the pocket; later, we saw them work on the proper steps to take at the end of a drop, and after receiving a shotgun pass. These steps are different depending on where the receiver is, so the assistant playing the role of (a stationary) receiver positioned himself at the line, then five yards downfield, and then ten to twelve yards downfield, and the QBs worked on using their feet to align themselves properly for a pass at each level. Lastly, they drilled looking in one direction and then turning - using proper footwork, of course - to the other to hit a safety valve, presumably a back in the flat.
Meanwhile, the offensive tackles and tight ends gathered to work on blocking defensive ends and linebackers. Here, offensive line coach Frank Pollack would signal to his two "defenders" what he wanted them to do in order to make each rep distinct. A key to the zone blocking system is the ability to adjust on the fly during double team-to-second level blocks, depending on where the defensive players are positioned. Because each play transpires differently, ZBS linemen must be drilled on all possible combinations to the point where they can work in concert, automatically. Saturday's work took place with that goal in mind.
While this was happening, the receivers' first stop was the sled pen, where they worked on getting underneath downfield defenders in the running game. Seeing this, I wondered if the fact that the wideouts' first padded practice began with run blocking was intended to remind Derek Dooley's charges of the importance of that aspect of their games. Much of the Cowboys' success in 2014 came as a result of their commitment to the run. As I noted in my practice summary, many of the line items on today's agenda served to announce a planned return to that commitment in 2015. Later, the receivers worked extensively on swatting away a defender's hand as they made their breaks, using a different technique for each type of pattern or break.
Next up was the first of two competitive periods, in which position groups faced off against each other. As might be expected, we immediately saw the O-line apply the work that Pollack and the boys had put in when doing position group work the first two and a half days of camp. Lache Seastrunk, the sole back assigned to that group, executed a series of running plays behind them against Marinelli's defensive line - with the first play being a run right up the gut. Pollack's gang also worked on sealing the edge on outside runs, double-teaming and then peeling, and getting good fits on second-level defenders.
The defensive guys, of course, tried to keep this from happening. When he went up against Tyron Smith, Ryan Russell failed in this endeavor; he fired off the line and was then stopped cold and swallowed up by the All-Pro left tackle on a run that went the other way. It was fun to watch theses two groups face off for the first time this summer, and they appeared to relish the contact. We also had running backs and tight ends face off against linebackers and safeties and cornerbacks go heads up with wide receivers; I'll watch those groups closely in future competitive periods and give you the straight dope.
The competitive period was punctuated by the Oxnard 2015's first "best of" session. It featured three matchups: Jason Witten vs. Barry Church (at the end of a play with a lot of contact and grabbing, Witten reached high to grab a Romo pass, causing Church to shake his head in disbelief); Terrance Williams vs. Orlando Scandrick (T-Will beat him deep, using his body to screen Scandrick and cradle the ball) and Lance Dunbar vs. Anthony Hitchens (Dunbar got open but couldn't corral an errant pass). Williams' play was likely the play of the day, and resulted in a congratulatory head butt from Dez Bryant and vigorous high fives from the rest of the receiver group. I liked that Jason Garrett had Williams, and not Bryant, go up against Scandrick, as if publicly rewarding Number 83 for his good work this offseason in Dez' absence.
After a water break, we were treated to the second full team period, and the first with contact. Watching this session reinforced an impression I had from earlier in practice: with the emergence of Darrion Weems, who is playing very well, with good technique and a good base, the Cowboys look strong at offensive tackle. After him, however, there is a precipitous drop-off; the J.R. Dills and John Wetzels of the roster simply don't measure up. As an illustration, Randy Gregory has struggled, one might say mightily, against the "big three" of Smith, Free and Weems, but he absolutely abused Wetzel on a pass rush in 11-on-11, flashing by him before the Boston College product could get out of his stance.
This was the session wherein Nick Hayden, either for getting beat or for making an incorrect read. In either case, it was pretty clear that Dunbar had found room in the area where Hayden was stationed, and his coach was none too pleased.and were able to exploit big creases created by the offensive line, often enjoying big gains before there was any contact. On one of those, a pretty Dunbar scamper, Rod Marinelli lit into
Next up was a second special teams period, which began with Dan Bailey reclaiming the "split-'em" moniker he seemed to lose at the end of 2014. Number 5 made all six of his field goal attempts, from 33, 37, 40, 35, 38, an 41 yards, often hitting the cameraman stationed on one of the elevator platforms directly behind the goalposts. This was followed by work on the punting unit. As noted above, it's early yet, but the starting punt coverage team is as follows:
|23/ 26 ||52||45||91||51||59||31|
Other than the two return men, who kept changing every rep, the nine men on the starting punt return unit were 31, 84, 40, 32, 26, 52, 38, 51, 45. Again, the names that keep cropping up on all the special teams units: McCray, D. Wilson, Heath, Gatchkar, Hanna, and Wilber. There's your special teams core, people.
The special teams period was capped by a water break, as the team gathered for the coming storm, in the form of another competitive period. This one offered one-on-one pass-rush drills. A standout moment: Terrell McClain abused Travis Frederick, using an arm-over move to jet into the backfield seemingly untouched. This work dovetailed with the next "best on best" session, which featured three OL vs. DL matchups: Tyron Smith stoned Greg Hardy (who appears still to be shaking off the rust), and Zack Martin held his own versus Tyrone Crawford, but DeMarcus Lawrence got the better of Doug Free, punching him to get his weight going backwards, then taking an hard inside step, which caused the slightly off-balance Free to lunge inside to compensate, whereupon Lawrence employed a rip move to fly by Free and to the quarterback unabated. It was an impressive combination of power and quickness.
As per usual, the entire day's work built to the final team period. Often, in these situations, the first team goes up against the second team on the other side of the ball, and vice versa. For this final period, it was ones against ones, twos against twos, etc. As if things weren't already combative enough, staffers blasted music during plays to simulate crowd noise, and there was plenty of smack talking from players on both sides of the ball. Overall, it was a lively, spirited session to cap a very competitive day, which was concluded by a final team stretch and a blue period featuring yet another peculiar exercise from tight ends coach Mike Pope, which prompted one wag to Tweet:
I've decided any unique drill Mike Pope comes up with should be called a "Papal Visit".— Edward Egros (@EdwardEgrosFox4) August 2, 2015
For the first time since they landed in Oxnard, the Cowboys had a significant injury. Backup linebacker Justin Jackson tore an ACL and is done for the foreseeable future. In addition, both Ben Gardner and Ronald Patrick were dinged. And, of course, Sean Lee was sidelined for what we were told were precautionary measures. With Lee, Jackson, Rolando McClain and Mark Nzeocha out, the linebacker corps is thinning noticeably; the Cowboys may need to go back to the well to find yet another camp body for the position.
And, finally: in case you missed it, this is pretty awesome: