As I noted in my post-practice summary, Thursday's affair served as the culmination to the three-day second phase of camp. The material in the lesson plan that the players have been boning up on is taken from chapters on the third down package, two-minute and red-zone offenses and the accompanying defensive sets and schemes. Since these different areas share considerable overlap, the team can work on them somewhat concurrently, with the largest day-to-day change being context. On Tuesday, the Cowboys began by working on end-of-half scenarios; yesterday, they focused on red zone work. Today, they revisited both, adding the pressure of a ticking clock. The result was a healthy serving of no-huddle and hurry-up offense.
Thursday's practice began as it does most days: with Rich Bisaccia running his guys through kickoff coverage. They are now at the point with this particular aspect of special teams that Bisaccia doesn't need to stop to teach specific aspects of the exercise; rather, he calls out the type of coverage scheme and lets his guys run down through their assigned lanes (at a walk-through pace; remember that this is technically part of the warm-up). After each rep, he offers instruction and/ or encouragement. On one occasion, he singled out Kyle Wilber, after the linebacker had cut neatly as per his assignment, shouting, "That's good Wilber! That's good!"
This was followed by the walk-through, where we were offered our first glimpse at the day's general schema. As I noted in my practice summary, it was here that Tony Romo communicated with his receivers at the line by using hand signals (patting the helmet, holding one thumb up) - a harbinger of the no-huddle and hurry-up work to come, both of which depend wholly upon clear, efficient communication as the players align themselves for the next play. Work on the no-huddle was not specific to the offense; the defensive guys also joined the fray, both in terms of their pre-snap communication and the rapid pace at which they sought to effect substitutions in the full team 11-on-11 periods.
As had been the case in recent days, we saw a preponderance of traditional passing down personnel groupings: 01 (four wide), 11 (three receivers) and s11 (three-wide, in shotgun). We also saw a lot of 12 personnel that looked suspiciously like 1, since Gavin Escobar aligned frequently in the slot. During the competitive and full-team periods, these formations were deployed in red zone and in end-of-half scenarios. As they had yesterday, Romo and Co. practiced throwing into the end zone from just outside the 20-yard line, when the defense is less packed in, and then moved on to throws into the end zone from close to the goal line: short crossing patterns and back-shoulder fades, mostly.
Next up was the warm-up period, which comes in several parts: a pat-n-and-go, a "ball period" that stresses ball security (offense) and turnover-generating stripping drills (defense). These are followed by a "screen period" where the offense runs the ball against air, and then a lengthy team stretch. During the defensive backs' pat-n-go session, Jerome Henderson was at the head of the line, telling them, "go!" But he wasn't looking at his charges; he was watching their feet, assessing their footwork as they turned at the line of scrimmage and ran with an imaginary receiver. You can see what I'm talking about here:
Byron Jones pic.twitter.com/qxVAXtg698— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 6, 2015
Once properly warmed up, the team broke into position groups for the position-specific exercises that they would later integrate into the practice's final periods. Most of this is familiar territory: the linebackers worked on a stack-and-shed drill, then set up a series of upside-down rubber trash cans to represent the offensive and defensive lines, working on fits in the running game. The safeties practiced backpedaling, then tracking the ball, high-pointing it for an interception as the defensive linemen hit the sled then wormed their way through the daily pass rush slalom; here's DeMarcus Lawrence executing a pretty spin move on his way to the quarterback:
DeMarcus Lawrence mixes in a spin move pic.twitter.com/eas4aMxviz— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 6, 2015
Following this, the team assembled in two groups for the first competitive period. Here, the offensive and defensive lines were joined on one end of the far field by a quarterback, a running back and a tight end to work on the running game. On the other end, we saw one-on-one receiver vs. cornerback battles in the red zone and then, after they moved the line of scrimmage, the end zone. On the far field, the linebackers and safeties covered tight ends and running backs as they ran through the shorter red zone and goal line pass routes. It was during this period that Dez reminded the assembled people of his superhuman nature. To wit:
Dez 3-for-3 in one on one drills pic.twitter.com/roXiCQnc5r— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 6, 2015
Dez abused whomever tried to cover him. Above, he abuses Orlando Scandrick, the team's best cornerback. As if to remind everyone that this was a reflection of Dez's awesomeness rather than a drop-off in his game, Scandrick went out and shut down Terrance Williams when he took his rep:
Scandrick makes a play in one on one drills pic.twitter.com/kFzwiv8U1N— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 7, 2015
But Dez wasn't the only receiver making hay (no haymaker jokes, please). Lucky Whitehead has a lot of Cole Beasley in him - and it's not simply because he is similarly diminutive. Both receivers are very tough to cover in the slot, using their low centers of gravity to make quick cuts and gain separation. Whitehead has displayed very good hands, often extending to make catches in tight quarters. The similarity makes me wonder, however: do the Cowboys need two players with such a similar, specific game? For my money, Whitehead's already shown enough as a receiver to show the coaching staff he can be effective in the passing game; his chances of making the roster will be determined by how well he plays on special teams in the preseason games.
Both competitive periods end with three "best-on-best" individual battles, which are always taken from the just-seen match-ups. Since best-on-best between linemen in the running game seems a bit silly, Thursday's best consisted of guys running patterns and other guys trying to cover them. Number 88 went up against Brandon Carr, with predictable results. Next, Jason Witten faced off against J.J. Wilcox:
Jason Witten pic.twitter.com/K68XT2lsRR— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 6, 2015
I'm not sure what Wilcox could have done differently...The session was concluded by Orlando Scandrick and Terrance Williams, with Number 32 providing tight coverage and extending a hand to knock away the pass.
Next on the agenda was 11-on-11 work. It was here that the defense worked on effecting quick defensive line substitutions. If the driving force behind the "waves" theory is to have fresh legs on the field at all times, then the best way to ensure that this remains a possibility against, say, the Eagles, is to drill substitutions relentlessly all preseason, so that they are second nature come mid-September. In my notes, I remarked, "situational football already, even if it's at a slightly lower level." That seems, in retrospect, to be a fair assessment of what transpired.
As I mentioned in the practice summary, Romo "throws guys open," whereas both Brandon Weeden and Dustin Vaughan frequently require that receivers adjust to their passes. As a result, they make their receivers look awkward. Romo, on the other hand, makes his wideouts appear graceful, since he's throwing to places where they can catch the ball in stride and not have to contort their bodies to corral it. This is especially evident with balls up the middle; when Number 9 tosses them, guys keep running, which is not the case with the backups. Sure, part of the discrepancy is that Romo has better receivers to work with. But when second teamers bump up to the starting unit, they suddenly become more effective: as they extended their arms, the ball dropped into their hands, and they were often in position to "rack some YAC."
Something else I noticed here (although I had picked up on it in earlier periods): the coaching staff has effectively installed Randy Gregory as the starting right defensive end. This is not to suggest he has been elevated above Greg Hardy (the other real possibility at RDE, Jeremy Mincey, has been lining up almost exclusively at LDE); rather, it suggests several other intriguing possibilities: they want him to take as many reps against Tyron Smith and his heavy hands as possible; it's critical to get Gregory ready from the jump, since they will be without Hardy for the first four games; along these lines, they want the opening day starters to play together as much as possible; they want their best four pass rushers on the field, and Gregory is one of the four. Whatever the case, it's interesting to see Gregory taking RDE reps before Hardy does...
Next up was the second special teams period - and the one where the now properly warmed-up players were able to cut loose. After Automatic Dan Bailey was again perfect on his six field goal attempts, with the longest being a 53-yarder, they began by working on the two discrete skills that are folded into one play: punting and punt coverage, with a feedback loop more or less evenly distributed between the two. Today's situational wrinkle was punting out of the shadow of one's own end zone, which impacts the kind of boot the punter can execute. A few days ago, I offered up a preliminary list of who was populating the various special teams. Since then, nothing has changed; Kyle Wilber, James Hanna, Danny McCray, Damien Wilson, Jeff Heath and Andrew Gachkar are still your core 'teamers.
The standard second competitive period was next, with the team split between OL-DL pass rush drills and seven-on-seven work. The quarterbacks and wide receivers were visiting material they had already worked at the end of the position group period, when two or more position groups tend to gather to work in coordinated fashion. They had also run these same patterns, against corners, in the earlier competitive period. When we add this to the various classroom sessions, the final competitive period represents perhaps the fifth time a give play might revisit a certain concept, route or technique.
Thursday's repeated lessons applied to the red zone's two layers: far (starting as, say, the 25 yard line) and deep (near the goal line). Because running is so difficult in these situations, where the shortened field means safeties are closer to the line of scrimmage, it stands to reason that the vast preponderance of formations and personnel groupings lent themselves to passing; I suspect we'll get run-heavy chapters in coming practices, and they will be applied to the goal line. Although passing was the order of the day, it wasn't necessarily the wideouts who were the beneficiaries; a lot of passes were thrown to backs in the flat - and not just on Weeden checkdowns!
The tight ends also figured heavily. James Hanna scored a touchdown, prompting Jerome Henderson to yell at Byron Jones, reminding him that the had help to the side he decided to play, leading the receiver to the area without help. Gavin Escobar, Hanna's compatriot in the tight end meeting room, followed that up with what might have been the play of the day:
Gavin Escobar TD grab pic.twitter.com/3G3pFCz4ls— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 7, 2015
Later, Lucky Whitehead ran a short pattern and made a terrific hands catch, extending to reach the ball, which stuck to his mitts with a low "thwap." Each day, he seems to assert himself a bit more as a receiver. As I mentioned before, it remains to be seen whether the team can carry two players with a relatively similar skill set - even if that skillset is useful and important.
The players got hyped for the final team period by gathering for the second "best-on-best" session of the afternoon. This one featured one-on-one pass rushing. Greg Hardy made a nice move to get inside Tyron Smith, but the big left tackle recovered nicely and held him at bay. Next, DeMarcus Lawrence got around the corner against Darrion Weems, albeit with difficulty. Lastly, Tyrone Crawford went against Zack Martin, who stymied him - no easy task, mind you.
At last, the players arrived at their final destination: a full team period with heavy emphasis on haste. After each completion, the offensive guys would hurry to the line, assembling in an organized fashion as quickly as possible. After a completion on an intermediate in route, for example, Romo got to the line and ten called out "Cowboy, Cowboy!" which resulted in an errant swing pass to Cole Beasley, leaving me to wonder if that's what the "Cowboy!" call signified.
In another interesting moment, we saw Rod Marinelli's troops deploy in the peculiar prevent formation we saw last year on long yards-to-go situations: he rushes three and has the rest line up about ten yards beyond the line of scrimmage, prepared to tackle the back before he can get the necessary yardage. Weirdly, one of these "deep men" was DeMarcus Lawrence, who stayed on the field since the defense morphed into the formation without changing personnel in a no-huddle environment.
Before the practice could be declared a wrap, however, the diminutive receivers had to make a final statement. Cole Beasley went first, making a superb grab in traffic and getting sandwiched by Orlando Scandrick and Barry Church. As the offense ran to the line in order to spike the ball and stop the clock, he walked woozily to the line and then spent the duration of the subsequent time out shaking off the hit. Not to be outdone, Whitehead (who was elevated to the first team after Dez Bryant tweaked his hamstring) made the "winning" catch - or at least the one that led to the game-clinching field goal:
Nice work, rook.
And, to conclude: after a relatively injury-free camp, the Cowboys are starting to add names to the injury report. Yesterday, they lost Lance Dunbar, Devin Street, Chris Whaley and Terrell McClain. Today, they added Dez Bryant and, in the most worrisome news of the day, Ken Boatright suffered a neck injury, and had to be put on a stretcher, carted off and taken away in an ambulance. Keep him in your thoughts today, BTBers.
Boatright has been sharing number 79 with Chaz Green. Now, after the injury, Green remains as the sole bearer of this great number (hello, Erik Williams? Harvey Martin?). The weight of history can be a crushing weight for its bearer, rendering him isolated and alone:
I'll be back after the off day with more practice reportage, from a big Saturday practice and Sunday's Blue-White scrimmage. It should be fun!