Rookie Role Revision
From the time Byron Jones was drafted, Cowboys observers have wondered what role he might play in the defense? Would he be a corner? Would he be a safety?
Today, the coaching staff offered a strong hint of the role they see for Jones in 2015, and it’s probably bigger than even the most creative fan considered. In the practice’s first 15 minutes, when the offense and defense move through the day’s script of planned offensive and defensive plays, Jones lined up next to Sean Lee in the nickel as a “linebacker.”
I put the role in quotes because Jones was more of a big safety, the third in a 4-1-6 that featured three cornerbacks and three safeties. Jones played man-to-man in every play, shadowing Jason Witten whereever he went. This tipped that Jones might indeed play the coverage role that’s become necessary against modern flex tight ends like Jimmy Graham. Jones is big enough to ride the faster tight ends and fast enough to keep them in his back pocket.
Later in practice, Jones returned to the linebacker spot, playing inside with Anthony Hitchens, who spelled Sean Lee (more on him later). Most rookies get a short role to rush them onto the field, but Jones, who played exclusively at right corner the first two days, ran the secondary gamut today. He played on the right side early, but played on the left corner later. He also played a true cover two safety, playing a deep half with Jeff Heath.
Jones had his growing pains. He offered strong coverage on most plays but was shaken by James Hanna when he covered the tight end from the linebacker spot. Since this is only the fourth practice of Jones’ professional career, it appears the coaches have confidence in his ability to absorb the lessons and perform in his many assigned roles.
Sunday also saw a continuation of the tutorials that began on Friday, though the masters drilled with new pupils today. Rod Marinelli worked backup tackles Davin Coleman and Ken Bishop on rip moves and inside counters. Charles Haley and Leon Lett moved from rookie Randy Gregory to Greg Hardy, hoping to add polish to the top rusher’s repertoire.
Sunday also saw Sean Lee’s return to action. Lee missed the first full pads with a lower body injury but looked spry for the first hour. He participated in all the pass drils and mini scrimmages. He sat out the second half, but this appeared to be precautionary.
New Sessions, New Wrinkles
After two days of drilling in the three-receiver 11 set on offense and defensing the 11 set on defense, today’s action featured a lot of work against two tight end packages. Marinelli drills his people hard on recognizing sets and understanding assignments. The offense threw variants of the 12 package at the D. Sometimes they would put both tight ends on one side and both receivers opposite them, a formation called flank. The offense would also motion into balanced sets (one tight end and one receiver on each side of the formation) and unbalanced sets, with a tight end and two receivers on one side with a lone tight end opposite them.
Marinelli has the offense throw a lot of motion at his group, challenging them to make proper switches. The defense played in a base 4-3 against the 12 package and his outside backers would have to slide into space to cover any tight end who flexed into the slot. Many defenses have their one linebacker make the calls on the formation they see. Today, during this exercise, Marinelli had all three linebackers making the call in unison. It’s one more sign that the defense is much farther ahead in its understanding of assignments than in either of the previous two seasons.
Special teams coaches across the NFL have had difficulty adapting to the recent two-man wedge rules on kickoff returns. Joe DeCamillis, the first Cowboys coach under these rules, had a hard time getting his return group to excel. Current coach Rich Bisaccia is working with a diamond wedge in his attempt to improve the Cowboys returns.
The Cowboys practiced today with five men up at the 50 and a four-man diamond behind them. Gavin Escobar played on the forward tip of the diamond, with Tyler Clutts on the left side, Kyle Wilber on the right and Terrell McClain on the bottom tip. Tyler Patmon played as the up-back in the two-man return tandem with Lance Dunbar as the returner.
The shape gave the wedge men superior angles for returns. Take a right return for example. The five up-men would drop back to the 30 on each kickoff, turn and drive upfield. From the left, Clutts would drop down and join hands with McClain, forming the two-man wedge. Patmon would run forward and be a third “off-wedge” blocker just outside of the wedge. The three would run between Escobar and Wilber, who blocked at 45 degree angles toward the right sideline. Dunbar would tuck behind his three men and weave his way up the field.
If the return was to the left, Wilber would drop to the join McClain as the wedge man and Clutts and Escobar would form the top of the return funnel. It remains to be seen how well this works in games, but in practice the wedge created some nice return lanes for Dunbar, because the diamond shape gave the wedge blockers superior angles to each side and up the middle.
— It appears that the coaches will maximize Lance Dunbar’s touches in 2015 by adding return duties to his 3rd down responsibilities. He was the first team kickoff and punt returner today. He’s getting first crack at the major return touches that Dwayne Harris had last year.
— More work for Byron Jones. In addition to his many defensive duties, Jones was a gunner on the 2nd punt coverage unit.
— Running back Lache Seastrunk took advantage of his reps, making some good catches in 11-on-11s.
— Tony Romo was high on his passes to the flats today. He sailed the ball on four short outside passes. Nothing to worry about, but something to tighten up.
— Offensive tackle Reshod Fortenberry likely suffered an abrupt end to his camp. He crumpled on a wide run and was carted off the field after trainers and the team doctor examined his left knee.
— Defensive end Jeremy Mincey returned to practice today but did not scrimmage or drill. He spent the full session with the trainers, working on his conditioning.
— A strong day for CB Brandon Carr, who followed a so-so Saturday with multiple break-ups and an interception of a Tony Romo floater.