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.