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Cowboys Training Camp Practice Number Four, Full Report: Phase One Install? Check!

On Sunday, the Cowboys continued their early camp install, adding further refinements to the basic skills lessons that characterized the first three days' practices.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday's practice opened with the defense filtering onto the field to get in some extra work on run fits while in the nickle defense. The guys playing offensive skill positions would don color-coded balaclavas, so the defensive guys would know who was playing which position (this affects their keys). The "offensive" players would look at a card held up by an assistant and then run (er, walk) the given play, with orange hats signifying receiver, red for tight ends and green for running backs. The number and arrangement of colors changed every play; on one occasion, three red caps on one side meant that the offense was in trips right. On another, we saw two tightly-aligned red hats, meaning that the offense was deployed in a strong left formation.

When the practice officially began, Rich Bisaccia and his assistants began  putting the team through their kickoff coverage and return paces. As I mentioned in my summary, it was interesting to see the way they have (quickly) installed the rudiments of this particular part of the game. On Friday, you may recall, the coaches divided the team up into two groups - the front line and the back men - and drilled them separately. Then they divvied them in halves, working the left side and then the right, stopping to work on a single aspect of the complex operation (the way the front unit faded back and set up for their blocks, for example).

They revisited this material in Saturday morning's walk-through practice, which was a special teams-only affair, and then revisited the same material once again on Saturday afternoon. So, in three days, they have had four opportunities to teach and refine the kick coverage. Thus it should be no surprise that on Sunday, the coaches didn't need to stop the operation to build in teaching moments; instead, they were able to run a series of full kick returns, waiting to offer specific feedback until after it was over (and, surely, during Sunday night's film review of practice). The added benefit is that each team got in several reps. For three years running, it has been a real pleasure watching Bisaccia operate; he has the ability to diagnose problems from amidst chaos (I certainly cannot take in or understand what takes place during a given kick return until I watch it several times, from multiple angles), and make quick corrections.

In my practice summary, I suggested that we consider the first four camp practices a discrete unit, the first of camp, culminating in Sunday afternoon's session. Over the four day's work, we have witnessed something akin to an "install" phase in which the players have ingested the rudiments of all the various special teams phases, big swaths of the nickle and dime defenses (especially a laundry list of interior blitzes) and, in response to those, the pages from the one-back playbook that focus on blitz pickup and blitz beaters.

In addition, I suggested that a lot of philosophical downloading has taken place. Much of this is stuff we have seen in past camps: the defense starts each day with turnover drills (what Garrett termed the "ball period") and has worked exhaustively on breaking down and tackling; the players are stretching much more rigorously, etc. To these philosophical considerations must be added zone running, particularly from the guards out, and press man coverage, which extends more broadly to a conceptual shift: the Cowboys want to play pressure defense. A further extension from this is that they are building a team designed to play with a lead - one that can run the ball and get pressure in the fourth quarters of games.

After the opening special teams period, the Cowboys had their first "team period," which is little more than a glorified walk-though, an opportunity for players to put classroom teaching into their bodies via physical reps. On Sunday, this period was of particular import, given the absence of a morning walk-through session, which is typically when that mind-to-body conversion initially takes root. Frankly, that absence showed - not in this period so much as in the practice overall. Sunday's session was, shall we say, a bit rough around the edges: false starts, dropped passes, errant snaps, fumbles, and other mental and physical lapses were the order of the day.

This had also been the case on Saturday; in his Sunday pre-practice presser, Garrett put much of the blame for this on the young players not understanding what it takes to practice correctly, with the proper intensity and technique. To my mind, this appears to be the NFL's version of first world problems: there is now a divide between the veterans and the youngsters that we haven't seen in recent years. One very real manifestation of this divide is the fact that none of Dallas' three "first-rounders" are slated to start; another is that only one position in the "starting 26" might conceivably be taken my a rookie. The Cowboys, suddenly, find themselves to be that most enviable of NFL quantities: a young yet veteran squad.

After the daily warm-up period, the Cowboys embarked on position group drills. As per usual, the defensive line drilled with a gauntlet of four big, heavy bags. The first exercise spaces them a few feet apart; each defensive lineman swats the bag with his away hand, crosses over in two steps, then hits the next bag in the opposite direction with the other hand, then attacks the ball (and the coaches are heard crying out, "Reach! Ball!").

This requires a combination of footwork and power: a D-lineman can't have the latter without the former. In the next drill, the bags are arranged more compactly, which puts an even greater premium on footwork - and separates the pros from the Joes in that regard.

For instance, rookie DEs Ryan Russell and Randy Gregory (both of whom, strangely, have two first names) aren't prohibitively different when the bags are further apart. But when they are bunched tightly, Russell's inability to coordinate hands and feet are exposed; Gregory, meanwhile, shows off light, quick feet, almost dancing through the bags to get to the quarterback.

While Rod Marinelli and Leon Lett put their uglies through their paces, the cornerbacks and linebackers also engaged in position drills. At one point, I noticed both units working on zone coverage concepts, specifically when covering an upfield and a flat route on the same side of the field. The key for both groups was to run with the downfield receiver long enough to pass him off to a deeper defender, while trying not to give the man in the flat too much cushion. In essence, they were tasked with spacing at speed and under duress, a critical skill for back seven players in Coach Rod's defense.

Next up was the first of two competitive periods. As was the case on Saturday, this first iteration featured the O-line versus the D-line in the running game on one end of the far field and, on the other, the quarterbacks and receivers versus the corners and safeties. None of the work in this first competitive period was one-on-one; such battles are reserved for the second competitive period later in the practice. Here, then, receivers ran full pattern combinations against a full deployment of defensive backfielders.

The competitive period was capped by the day's first "best-on-best" session. As always, there were three battles: Devin Street against Brandon Carr (Street caught a quick in on the left side of the field) was followed by Gavin Escobar vs. Andrew Gachkar in a pass blocking drill (it looked like a draw, but Escobar might have been given the win) and, lastly, Damien Wilson blitzing through a gap formed by two assistants, with Joseph Randle assigned to pick him up. Wilson bowled him over, receiving hearty congratulations from his defensive mates.

With their competitive juices flowing properly, the Cowboys began their second full team 11-on-11 session with both units deploying in "base" personnel: 21 and 12 groups for the offense and 4-3 for the defense. At this point, Sean Lee was excused from practice, as the training staff continues its precautionary program for the oft-injured linebacker. His place was taken by Damien Wilson, who joined Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber as the (temporary) starters. As might be expected given the personnel grouping, most of the playsheet consisted of zone runs, most of them outside the guards.

For the second day in a row, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar exploited large creases for big gains. After several of these, Rod Marinelli was apoplectic, reaching deep into his capacious bag of curses to throw some rare invective at his beaten troops. Curiously, the defense stiffened after this tirade, limiting offensive gains for the remainder of practice. One one play, Terrell McClain (keep your eyes on him) shot into the backfield, forcing the runner to change direction, such that he was swallowed up behind the line of scrimmage.

Later in the same period, we were treated to a sizable helping of 11 personnel, much of which was disguised. What I mean by this is that Scott Linehan's men would line up in what amounted to a three-wide look, but with Gavin Escobar in the slot. So, technically, this was 12 personnel, but we rarely, if ever, saw both TEs line up as the "Y," or in-line end. Nor did we see either of them function as the "F," in the backfield. I'm sure we'll see an array of TE combinations later in camp. On Sunday, however, Number 89 might as well have been in the receiver meetings. The highlight of this period, by the way, was a lovely Brandon Carr interception: he stepped in front of a short pass, rolled over and jumped up in preparation for a return. Nice work, indeed.

It was during this period that promising rookie OT Reshod Fortenberry hurt his left knee severely enough that he needed to be carted off the field. Football doesn't care: as Fortenberry lay on the turf, in pain, attended by team trainers, the staff moved the line of scrimmage twenty yards downfield and continued with practice. This reminded me of a similar situation two camps ago when Tyrone Crawford hurt his Achilles; the D-line assistants simply moved the line of heavy bags and the drill continued as he lay there, contemplating his lost season.

The next period witnessed the return of special teams, with the field goal unit up first. You may recall that, on Friday, Bisaccia had his men focus on blocking assignment and getting off a clean snap, such that there was no kicking. Today, they added the missing element, and Automatic Dan Bailey knocked five of six kicks through the uprights, pushing a 46-yarder wide right. I realize that this is premature, but I think we do need to begin considering: is Dan Bailey not only the best kicker in Cowboys history, but perhaps the best in NFL history? A clutch kick or two during a playoff run just might be what he needs to get that ball rolling...

As the field goal unit did their thing, the wide receivers worked with the big yellow balls, breaking down and wrapping up. Consider that several of the wideouts will be on the coverage units, and this exercise suddenly emerges as essential. After this, the team practiced punting/ punt coverage from a variety of places on the field, and against a cornucopia of different punt block/ rush schemes. The punting team thus tried its hand against several possible rush combinations in a short period of time. How do they coach all this chaos? Bisaccia stands behind the punter, focusing on the linemen's assignments, while Jerome Henderson works with the gunners, whose technical requirements are strikingly similar to those of his cornerbacks.

After a water break, the team began its second competitive period, featuring one-on-one instead of full position or multi-unit work. The offensive and defensive linemen lined up for pass rush drills (both one-on-one and two-on-two), and the wide receivers and running backs faced off against the defensive backs. Strangely, the linebackers remained on the sideline, watching the action. I'm not sure what the reason for this was, but I wonder if it was a gameday decision based on the thinning linebacker roster.

In the seven-on-seven session, most of the pass routes were short, and the QBs threw either out of a three-step drop or the shotgun. This makes sense if we recall that one of the keystones to the offensive package here in phase one has been blitz pickup and blitz beaters. When the opponent sends the house, receivers must cut off their routes to help the quarterback; today's route combinations looked to be of the quarterback-assisting variety. More exciting for the football nerds amongst us, it was during these 7-on-7 session that the Cowboys technical staff broke out the virtual reality cameras. There appear to be four of them. One is positioned in the center of field, roughly where the QB will execute his drop:

Also, two cameras, each at the end of a long pole, are located on the sides, each about ten yards from its respective sideline and another camera, at the height of the first, is placed about 15-20 yards from where the ball is snapped.

If the reports are accurate, the footage captured by these cameras is stitched together digitally to provide the three-dimensional virtual environment into which the team's quarterbacks immerse themselves as a key part of their training.

The second "best-on-best" session began with Terrell McClain, heads up on Travis Frederick McClain, making a nifty move at the snap to shoot to Fredbeard's left, but Number 72 recovered and ended up keeping McClain off his quarterback. Next up was Jack Crawford versus Ronald Leary. It was no contest; Leary buried him, squishing Crawford against the ground for good measure. Finally, Randy Gregory stood in against Darrion Weems. I think Weems got the best of him, but Gregory flashed his athleticism. Once he gets a bit stronger and develops a couple of counter moves, Number 94 is going to be something.

And Sunday's coup de grace: the final team period. Again, we saw a good deal of the 11-personnel-that-is-really-12 personnel featuring Gavin Escobar. Linehan mostly passed from this alignment, but did call run plays from it that proved effective. Some highlights:

  • Romo did a nice job evading a rush to hit a wide open Devin Street for a big gainer (it would probably have been a sack in a game)
  • Romo then beat a blitz by hitting Cole Beasley on an intermediate crossing pattern. The diminutive one took it to the house, escorted by Terrance Williams.
  • The first team executed a nice blitz-beating screen to Dunbar. It looked like the kind of play that, in a game situation, could result in an impressive gainer.
  • Williams took a reverse around the left corner, finding a big alley for a nice pick up after the defense over-committed to the run action.
  • The final segment of this taem period saw the coaches adding situations ("third and five" they would yell), forcing the players to factor in the down and distance to their pre-snap decision tree.
  • Dez Bryant and Tyler Patmon got into the camp's first fisticuffs - apparently started by the scrappy little corner. Later, they hugged it out and order was restored.

As the players were cooling down from their skirmish, in the form of the day's final stretching session, a horn sounded, signalling the official, and definitive, end of practice. The Cowboys now enjoy a rest day, and will resume two-a-days on Tuesday. I, too, will enjoy my rest day, when I'll recharge the old battery so that I can bring you every detail from the next phase of camp.

Until then!

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