DALLAS COWBOYS SAFETY VALVE: Sensabaugh, Church show potential to make plays and stabilize secondary
The focus of the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive upgrade in the offseason was at cornerback.
They spent megabucks on free agent Brandon Carr and traded up six spots to take Morris Claiborne in the first round. The hope is that better coverage leads to more sacks, pressures and, ultimately, interceptions.
But what ailed the Cowboys in their December fade was not just seeing Terence Newman give up a big play or get used like a hurdle in the Summer Olympics. Safety play was more than just a bit player, and that came after the Cowboys sunk a new contract into Gerald Sensabaugh.
In the April draft, the Cowboys were extremely interested in Alabama’s Mark Barron, but they didn’t like the cost of having to move up to take a safety.
The Cowboys’ plan to improve the position was to sign free agent Brodney Pool and draft Matt Johnson in the fourth round. Pool, who received only a $100,000 signing bonus, was cut the first week of camp, and Johnson has yet to practice because of a hamstring injury.
But after Monday’s 3-0 preseason shutout of the Oakland Raiders, the Cowboys have to like what they see from their safeties.
Sensabaugh had an interception on the Raiders’ first drive. Barry Church, who stole the starting spot with a strong start to camp and made Pool expendable, came up with two tackles on Oakland’s second drive, which ended in a punt. And Mana Silva clinched the shutout with an interception in the final minute.
"We’re definitely looking to be more of a ball-hawking unit as a safety crew," said Church, who has one career start. "If we get that, then it makes for an easier job for the corners and our defense overall."
Sensabaugh’s interception was a sign of offseason progress. Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer went for the dagger early to Jacoby Ford deep down the field on a call that would have made late Raiders owner Al Davis happy.
Instead, the ball ended up in Sensabaugh’s arms for the game’s first turnover.
"I saw the quarterback staring at the outside receiver and I’ve been working on it all offseason, just getting a read to get to both sides," Sensabaugh said. "Orlando (Scandrick) had great coverage and was still on top of him, and that gave me a chance to get over the top. He overthrew the ball a little bit and I was able to make a positive play for us."
The Cowboys are going to need that range from Sensabaugh, who said he anticipates playing more of a center-field role in 2012.
"Whenever you have a guy like that that can help the corners on those deep balls is a real advantage for you," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the quarterback, and he had great eye discipline to get to the ball."
They also need Church, who is the more traditional strong safety, to be more than just reliable. He showed early in camp he has improved in coverage and he showed against the Raiders that he will be aggressive in his reads.
He conceded that he was a little nervous before he made his first tackle.
"I definitely want to keep piling up good practices on top of good practices and eventually, when it comes to the regular season, good games on good games," Church said.
The Cowboys have struggled at the safety position since Darren Woodson’s retirement before the 2004 season and Roy Williams’ fall from Pro Bowl grace not long after. Church will be the fourth starter opposite Sensabaugh in four years, following Ken Hamlin, Alan Ball and Abram Elam.
But elite safeties are not necessary to have a stout defense. Take away Baltimore’s Ed Reed and Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, and there aren’t many playmakers at the position. Look at last year’s Super Bowl champs, whom the Cowboys play twice a year, as an example.
"Gerald’s a guy who’s stepped up not only on the field but off the field as a leader, communication-wise," linebacker Sean Lee said. "Barry Church is a guy who’s really a good football player who’s now been given a chance and he looks like he’s taking advantage of the opportunity."
There is a long way to go, but Monday was at least a good start after a not-so-good finish to the 2011 season.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo played three series against the Raiders, producing zero points and gaining 22 yards in that stretch. He took one sack, narrowly avoided another and watched the team take a false start penalty on third down.
But he said he was not discouraged by the lack of production.
“I want to see us move it up and down the field as well,” Romo said. “But we made a couple of mental errors. And when you get behind the chains, it’s very difficult to overcome that situation. Sacks and penalties, they just put you behind the 8-ball. You can’t have 2 or 3 of those in a two-or-three drive span. We’re going to look at them and we’re going to correct them.”
Romo praised the work of guard-turner-center David Arkin, who had no errant snaps in three-plus quarters of work in his first NFL action at the position. During practices, Arkin had struggled snapping the ball, especially in the shotgun.
Arkin expressed satisfaction at going glitch-free as a snapper but acknowledged he shared blame for the one sack on Romo (minus-12 yards) because of a communications error. Still, Romo praised Arkin.
“He’s done a great job this week,” Romo said. “I just took snaps from him for the first time three days ago. He’s playing his butt off, so it’s a good sign.”
Romo suggested the Cowboys’ offense would have been better, based on what the Raiders’ showed defensively, in a regular-season setting.
“You look at the coverages they were running, we could have gotten to some thing we really like but that’s not what we do in the pre-season. And for good reason,” Romo said.
The Dallas Cowboys’ defense opened Monday’s game in a package that included three inside linebackers on the field at the same time (Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Dan Connor). It remains unclear how much the package will be used throughout the season, but Lee said it is one of many fresh wrinkles that fans can expect in the team’s second season under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
“We’ve used it some in camp,” Lee said of the three ILB approach. “And we have a lot of things waiting. As we use more and more packages, I think we’ll get better with them.”
The alignment offers more opportunities to get Carter, an athletic second-year pro, on the field. Carter made only one tackle in a scrimmage situation during a 2011 season in which he primarily rehabilitated from a knee injury suffered in college.
“It felt good to get out there and move around a little bit,” said Carter, who made the Cowboys’ first tackle of the game. “Just to get the feel for it. I’ve been out a while.”
Alex Albright, a second-year pro who has been training at both inside and outside linebacker, led the Cowboys with tackles (9) while lining up at both positions. Albright said he “felt a lot more comfortable (at ILB)” against the Raiders than at any time last season while he was learning the position.
But he’s still not ready to pull double-duty in a game at tight end, the position where he practiced one day last week in Oxnard.
“Not yet. Their play calls sound like Spanish,” Albright said. “I’m still trying to learn that.”
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten will likely be sidelined for the rest of the preseason after suffering abdominal injury in Monday’s night’s 3-0 opener against the Raiders, according to multiple sources.
The Cowboys are conducting more testing on Witten, who injured his spleen after taking a hit from Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain. According to a source, Witten’s spleen was not ruptured but it was bleeding.
He will not require surgery but he will be sidelined for the next three weeks, putting his availability for the Sept. 5 season opener against the Giants in doubt.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones expressed a sigh of relief after the game that Witten didn’t appear to be hurt from the hit on the second play of the game. He told reporters that he held his breath when he saw the hit.
However, it appears Jones may have spoken to soon as Witten was indeed injured on the play.
He came back and caught a pass on the next series and then was taken out when the rest of the starters were sidelined for the game.
But the bad news came when the Cowboys returned to Oxnard to resume training camp.
The injury is potentially a huge setback as not only was Witten the Cowboys leading receiver but they have little experience and little depth at tight end behind him after Martellus Bennett bolted to the New York Giants as a free agent in the offseason.
Jason Phillips will likely start in his place until he returns. The other tights on the roster are rookie sixth-round pick James Hanna and undrafted rookie free agent Andrew Szczerba.
RELATED: Harry Flaherty signed; Bill Nagy waived
The Cowboys moved quickly to bolster the tight end position for practice, signing Harry Flaherty and waiving injured guard Bill Nagy.
Flaherty is the nephew of head coach Jason Garrett and tight ends coach John Garrett. He may not be able to help in Saturday’s preseason game against the Chargers as he will Wednesday and Thursday’s practice adhering to the NFL’s three-day waiting period.
The Cowboys will only conduct a walkthrough on Friday.