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This Psycho is a Rude Beast
Rob Ryan’s defense works a lot on scheme. He mixes lots of pre-snap movement with heavy pressure, hoping to knock opposing QBs and their receiving corps out of sync.Ryan also likes to sow confusion by playing people out of character. Linemen play linebacker. Safeties and corners blitz. Linebackers put their hand down and play the run.
On a day when the Cowboys are running a bit thin on the defensive line, Ryan brought out his ”psycho” packages. If the results are any indication, he could drive plenty of opposing quarterbacks mad.
I spent most of the day on the south side of the Alamodome, in the end zone where the linebackers toil. I wanted to see Rob Ryan and new LB coach Matt Eberflus work their guys out. They offered a sneak peek at the psycho nickel and dime sets, which were the center of the defense’s work today.
After punt drills, the linebackers met Eberflus and Ryan in front of a set of overtuned drums, which represented the offensive line and two tight ends. There were gaps between the drums which corresponded to lineman splits. The coaches has the linebackers running blitz drills in sets of three. There was lots of looping, and twisting involved. In some cases two linebackers rushed through the same gap, and would have to time their entries so they did not collide with each other.
The timing was sloppy at times, prompting Ryan to hurl some, “what the hell was that’s” at his guys. Repetition works, and the cohesion improved as the drill went on.
The coaches were working exclusively with the 2nd and 3rd units at this time. The starting quartet of Ware, Spencer, James and Brooking came out ten minutes after the backups and Ryan took them to one side, while Eberflus continued to work with the backups. Ryan put the four through a different set of strange blitzes, which offered some clues to later drills. In some he took the four and had them blitzing from inside linebacker positions, between the tackles. In others, he put the four on one side of the center. In others, he had Ware and or Spencer line up as linemen. Was this to help the inside backers run their stunts? Were the outside backers really going to line up as linemen?
The first answers came 50 minutes into practice, when the Cowboys held their first 11-on-11 drill. The offense began using a lot more spread packages; where yesterday it went with basic, two-back, two-receiver sets, today we saw a lot more one back sets, some with two tight ends and others with three receivers.
The defense countered with two variants of the nickel sets Ryan used with Cleveland and Oakland. On some plays, the defense would field two linemen and four linebackers, with an extra corner or safety brought in, depending on the offensive package faced. Ryan also deployed a one-lineman, five linebacker set with six DBs. The key was a hybrid end, who could either stand up or get into a three point stance. To the casual observer, it looks like a standard 3-4 front with one DE missing. One DE lines up over an offensive tackle, the nose tackle lines up over the center and the ”open” side OLB either stands up outside his OT, where the DE would be in a base set, or stays up.
After ten minutes of this drill, the Cowboys took a two minute water break, then went back to agility and positional drills. After ten minutes of that, the defense ran a second variant of the ”strip circuit” they ran yesterday. Today, four stations were set up.
In the first, Dave Campo stood about eight yards inside the near sideline with players on either side of him. Campo would roll the ball towards the sideline. Players would approach the ball in pairs. The first to reach the ball tried batting it back towards the field, to keep it out of bounds. The second tried to pick up the swatted ball on the roll and run with it.
In station two, a coach threw a ball at the belly of on-rushing defenders, trying to simulate a distressed quarterback trying to get rid of the ball. The defenders tried to catch it on the fly.
At station three, another coach tried floating the ball over onrushing lineman, mimicking a screen toss into the flat. The defenders tried to knock it into the air and catch it.
At station four, defenders cut laterally, as if cutting off a passing lane, and tried to intercept a coaches throw over their outside shoulder. The players broke into four groups and cycles through the four groups.
On the opposite side of the field, the offensive players again worked on ball protection, on trying to avoid strips and punches at their football.
Turning a Pick Into Six
In the next drill, Ryan put on his special teams hat and ran a pick drill. He had his guys get into base defenses, and run stock blitzes at him. Ryan would then lob the ball high into the secondary, towards a corner or a safety. The defender was to catch the ball and the rest of the defense immediately tried setting up a wall to block for the interceptor. The drill was mapped out with precision. The defender nearest the ball called it out, to avoid a collision with a teammate. This also allowed the nearest teammate to become a blocker and peel off the receiver nearest the interceptor. The linemen and linebackers formed a wall, like a punt return team.
It is clear Ryan does not want to settle for turnovers. He wants his defense to score — a lot.
After 20 minutes of agility drills and 7-on-air drills the Cowboys again held an 11-on-11 in different spots on the field. First, the ball was put on the offense’s 25. Ryan went full bore with blitzes, and Jason Garrett countered with five different screens and a flanker reverse. Two of the screens succeeded, but Ryan’s guys blew up the two flanker screens and the reverse. The safety position may be a question mark, but the cornerbacks have clearly been energized by Ryan’s more aggressive schemes. Terence Newman was a missile today, popping receivers in the short zones.
Next, the ball was placed on the offense’s 40. Ryan kept bringing the heat, and the offense tried half a dozen draws and traps. The defense is ahead on day two, but that’s to be expected. Defenses almost always start ahead of offenses. The key is how the Cowboys offense adapts to pressure. If they get comfortable facing a pressure scheme every day in practice, they’re not likely to be fazed by pressure other teams apply.
The kickers then came on for their daily field goal drill. It’s a bit early to start the David Buehler watch, or is it? Buehler was only three of five by my count. His backup was perfect.
After a 6-on-8 drills, the offense and defense again went 11-on-11. And here, Ryan unleased the psycho blitzes his guys had practiced at the beginning of the day. Tony Romo made a couple of big plays down the field, but he had to hold the ball a long time before finding a target. It’s not clear in these pad-less drills if he could have completed those throws under game conditions. Jon Kitna did a lot of tucking and running and Stephen McGee was flumoxed.
JThe defense had the edge, on the line and in the secondary. Part of that is the craziness of the scheme. In one case, Dallas ran what looked like a 4-3, but it had two true linemen, Jay Ratliff and Igor Olshansy. They were flanked by Ware and Spencer, who put their hands down on this play. Stacked behind the line were the regular ILBs Brooking and James, with Sean Lee between them.
Later in the drill Ryan put a 1-5-5 defense on the field, with Ratliff on the nose and Spencer lining up as a down lineman, with Ware and Victor Butler as the OLBs and Brooking and James between them.
The most exotic blitz came when Ryan again used a 1-4-6 package. In this case, he had Demarcus Ware line up as the slant nose tackle, with Jay Ratliff standing and stacking behind him. Ratliff dropped into the short middle zone while Butler, Spencer and Lee blitzed from the outside.
There was no clear pattern to the Cowboys blitzes or personnel. On some plays you saw all four of the Dallas OLBs — Ware, Spencer, Butler and Brandon Williams — on the field. Confusion ensued and Brooking capped the final drills by faking an inside blitz, dropping into a lane, picking off Romo and returning the ball for a score.
As long as Ryan turns the opposing QBs crazy, and not his owns, things are looking up for the Dallas D and the Cowboys as a whole.
The refs were back again today. I wonder if Garrett will keep them for the entire San Antonio camp?
— Playing fast. Jason Garrett has five and ten minute segments set for his guys, but they’re working at such a fast pace, they often don’t need to use all the time and move on. For instance, a water break began on a half hour, but only took three minutes. A passing drill seemingly had ten minutes budged but was done in eight.
— Good discipline. You think Jason Garrett wasn’t paying attention to all the offsides penalties Wade Phillips’ defenses took? The Cowboys QBs have been using hard counts in all the 11-on-11 drills. They got the defense to jump yesterday on a couple of plays but could not draw a flag today.
As a result, the Cowboys did all their work ten minutes early. Practice wound up at 5:20.
— It won’t be long for Andre Gurode. He worked with the trainers today using the long bungee cables, which offer resistance while he goes through agility drills. He also did some fo the stretching and conditioning drills. he has no limp.