On Thursday, camp seemed to slow down a bit, and for several reasons: grizzled veterans Tony Romo and Jason Witten (the two remaining players from the class of 2003) were given a rest day, which meant the other QBs on the roster moved up a slot (with the result that all three offensive units were less effective than they had been); since the morning session has been all special teams, neither the punter nor kicker actually kicked the ball, so we saw semi-truncated special teams work (field goal work, for instance, consisted of snapping the ball to the holder); and, finally, the coaches appeared to slow down the general tempo at times, in order to allow the younger players some slower, more digestible lessons.
Your Beloved 'Boys commenced practice with a special teams period focused on kickoff and kick return, which has been the staple study of the recent opening teams sessions. One reason for this, I assume, is that the pace of these particular aspects of play lend themselves more to a walk-through pace. Punt return, for instance, depends on sprinting downfield and handfighting at speed, whether as a gunner or as an interior coverage man. Kickoff, on the other hand, is about precise positioning and spacing, which can be worked on quite handily at a walk-through pace, a necessity for any work done before the team embarks upon the lengthy lower-body stretching session that marks the commencement each day's "real" work.
Unlike last year at this time, when Rich Bisaccia and the special teams staff were sifting through myriad possibilities for his various special teams lineups, the core special teams appears to be well set, as it has changed little in the last week (although it likely will need to shift a bit due to the injury to Terrell McClain, the bottom of the diamond on the kickoff return unit, who was injured yesterday). As I mentioned in a recent practice report, , , , Andrew Gachkar, , and Kyle Wilber continue to be the "core" guys represented on all the various 'teams units. They are joined by others, such as Byron Jones and J.J. Wilcox, who play on multiple units. It's certainly possible that this core will change as camp progresses; still, the fact that they have decided on - and are developing a cohesiveness among - a core is yet another way in which the 2015 edition of the Cowboys is a step ahead of last year's model.
After close to 15 minutes for this work, the horn blew, and the team gathered for the 11-on-11 walk-through. As is almost always the case, this work offered a preview of the day's general overview: a lot of permutations of 11 (three wide receivers) and s11 (same, but in shotgun) personnel, with one permutation being a four-wide look, but with a tight end or running back in the slot. We also saw a decent percentage of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end), which we saw further developed in the QB-RB drills, when we saw a lot of fullback leads, where the running backs worked on cutting off of the FBs block. This was extended in the competitive run period, as I will detail below.
Next up: a stretching session. Watching this, O.C.C. and I played a little game wherein we looked closely to see if any of the players were modifying their stretching routine, which typically signifies that they are nursing a ding of some kind. Happily, we concluded that all was well: the entire squad was engaged in the full stretch, with no favoring or sitting out. We congratulated ourselves for having Mike Woicik in the fold and the fact that his strength and conditioning program - combined with the team's general youth - have led to greater health, and certainly a higher participation rate in 2015 than in recent camps. Clearly, this was a moment of hubris that necessitated punishment by the football gods, as Wednesday proved to be marked by injuries suffered to several players, Lance Dunbar, Devin Street, Chris Whaley, and Terrell McClain foremost among them.
After the lower-body stretch (which lasts about ten minutes), we saw the pat-n-go and defensive pursuit drills that stand as an official prequel to practice. The "screen period" saw the offense working extensively on motion, specifically for tight ends. On several occasions, a tight end would motion in and then back out, poised right outside the tackle, to be in position to block on the edge at the snap. In addition, this is where they first showed us that one line item in the day's agenda would be to work on outside pitches. All this work was put to the test, of course, in the various run periods later in the afternoon.
Finally, the team divvied up and headed to their respective areas of the field for position group work. The wide receivers worked on a drill in which they cut around a series of cones, chopping their feet and keeping their weight above their feet while cutting sharply. Smaller receivers - Reggie Dunn, Lucky Whitehead, Nick Harwell - have a natural size advantage in such an exercise and executed precise cuts. Bigger wideouts, guys like Deontay Greenberry, really struggled to keep their feet below their weight - which makes the fact that big receivers Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams do this well particularly impressive.
In the near end zone, Frank Pollack and his crew opened the playbook to the chapter titled "man blocking" and got to work. The interior offensive linemen worked on getting across a defender to his outside shoulder in order to seal him off. The tight ends and offensive tackles worked together on similar drills, working together to create a hole off tackle wherein the OT gains outside position on the defensive end, hemming him in, and the tight end drives the OLB outside, creating a nice running lane - exercises that dovetailed perfectly with what the quarterbacks and running backs were doing: polishing the timing, spacing and (surprisingly complicated) footwork on pitches to the outside.
It was during this period that we saw a lot more standing around than I had witnessed at any point in camp. I discussed this in my summary: the possibility that, with Romo and Witten taking a powder, it presented a real opportunity to slow down the breakneck tempo seen thus far and spend some time with the younger pupils on basic lessons. Recall Jason Garrett telling reporters last week that the young guys were struggling because they didn't yet grasp what it meant to practice well. He told reporters, "I don't think the young guys understand the level of commitment they need to make to learn their assignments and learn this game the way it needs to be learned." To my eyes, it appeared as if the coaching staff decided to take a bit of time to get their younger, less experienced charges caught up on the basic material they need to compete.
Later in the position group session, the offensive skill players gathered for passing drills against air. The coaching staff set them up just outside the 20-yard line, on the outskirts of the red zone. This made sense once they began to run the plays, as many of them seemed designed to get the ball in or near the end zone. Given the increasing difficulty of scoring the closer one gets to the goal line, having a set of plays like this in one's arsenal makes a good deal of sense. As this melted into the competitive period, they were joined by the defensive backs, who endeavored to keep the guys in the white jerseys out of the end zone. Elsewhere, the offensive line, a single, select tight end and two running backs faced off versus defensive linemen, and tight ends went head-to head against linebackers and safeties. As mentioned above, this OL-DL work is where we saw a heavy dose of two-back runs, especially a lot of tosses and edge runs where the fullback would lead off tackle and the back often followed him and then cut behind/ inside his block.
The competitive period culminated in the day's first "best-on-best" session, which pitted Corey White against Lucky Whitehead (Whitehead got open on a corner route only to see the ball bounce off his hands); Geoff Swain head-to-head with Jeff Heath (Swain used a nice little move to gain separation and Weeden hit him with a nice ball for a completion); and Tyler Clutts versus Kyle Wilber (Clutts used his body to bump Wilber and get separation, prompting a displeased Wilber to return the bump along the sideline, with a bit extra).
This brought us to the second special teams period where, instead of working on field goals, Bisaccia and Co., broke the seal on the "specials" envelope that had been hidden in his safe, revealing a playsheet filled with fake field goals. After reviewing the basic blocking techniques for field goals, Bisaccia moved his players back, to the limits of Dan Bailey's range, and then had L.P. Ladouceur direct snap it to Bailey instead of the holder, whereupon Number Five would pooch-punt, aiming for a bouncer deep inside opponent's territory. I enjoyed watching Chris Jones, the holder, rise out of his stance and join the other men running down to cover the bouncing kick. After this, they moved to punt coverage, which was executed at higher speeds than it had been in previous practices. As a way to deal with this speed (and chaos), Bisaccia broke the coverage into discrete units, working first with the right side, then the left, making subtle corrections after each rep. They worked in particular on effecting clean transitions during that critical moment when the punter kicks the ball, and the rushers suddenly become blockers and blockers become pursuers.
Next up was a second, more demanding competitive period. Now, there were only two groups: skill positions in 7-on-7 working on red zone material, and big uglies in the trenches. The first-team O-line is ahead of the starters on the D-line (but not by the wide margin we witnessed in camp last year), but the second- and third-team offensive lines are further behind their counterparts than is usual. I think this is less a matter of poor depth on the O-line (after all, guys like Mackenzie Bernadeau and La'el Collins are running second team) than it is a testament to the quality depth among the rushmen. When guys like Ben Gardner and Ryan Russell (both of whom are coming on and had terrific practices on Wednesday) are your third team defensive ends, the "wave" rushing concept is underway and working well.
That built to the second short "best-on-best" competition, wherein Lavar Edwards beat Laurence Gibson around the edge; Davon Coleman abused John Wetzel with a nasty arm-over move (to his credit, Wetzel recovered decently, getting enough of Coleman to slow him down); and Russell capping off his strong afternoon by getting the edge on Darrion Weems, and easily. Again, I saw this more as a testament to Russell's improving game than I did to Weems' incapacity to serve as an effective third OT. But, hey, I'm a fan, so I might be mis-reading what I saw...
After these heated snaps, the team entered into the final team period, the first phase of which was red zone material in which each string was given the ball at the opponent's 25 with the goal of scoring a touchdown. The first and second teams, manned by Brandon Weeden and Dustin Vaughan, respectively, failed, one might say miserably: neither was able to generate a first down, much less a touchdown; both settled for Dan Bailey field goal attempts (in other words, a snap to the holder). The third team, captained by Jamiel Showers, enjoyed more success; it was here that Devin Street made what was probably the play of the day, a terrific, elevated grab in the corner of the end zone with a game Bryon Jones draped all over him. Touchdown, third team!
Last up was the situational work that will characterize the final segment of the final full team period for the rest of camp. Jason Garrett loves this work as the event to which the entire practice builds, as it challenges his men to apply the day's lessons under the multiple pressures of opponent, volume (the speakers aligned on the sidelines crank as the offense sidles to the line) and time (Garrett's situation of the day was this: each unit was given the ball on the 45 with 32 seconds left on the clock, trailing by two, with the goal to get the winning score. If you will pardon the expression, that's nut-cuttin' time, friends). Here, Joseph Randle made two good plays - a nice gain on an underneath crossing route and a solid run off of right tackle that featured a pretty jump-cut to his right at the line - to get the team in position for a game-winning field goal.
Later, both Gus Johnson and Reggie Dunn made nice plays to help the offense get in similar position. I'll have more to say about Dunn, as he's my leading candidate at present for the fifth WR positions. After a final stretch, the team had another Thursday in the books. We'll all be back at it later today, and I'll be back on schedule, with a post-practice summary tonight and a full report first thing tomorrow.