Gerald Sensabaugh Is the X-Factor in Dallas Cowboys' Revamped Defense

Mike CarleyCorrespondent IMay 28, 2009

JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 09:  Safety Gerald Sensabaugh #43 of the Jacksonville Jaguars drops back into coverage while taking on  the Tennessee Titans at Alltel Stadium on September 9, 2007 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Titans defeated the Jaguars 13-10.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Terrell Owens is no longer a Cowboy.

This much is true, and it is a fact that has many widespread ramifications on the entire Dallas Cowboys organization.

The circus T.O. inevitably brings to town has departed to the Great White North, leaving an eerie calm over America's Team.

No longer are reporters goading Cowboys players for a disparaging comment against the much-maligned pass catcher. 

No longer is Tony Romo getting drilled about how he plans to get T.O. the ball every game.

No longer will reporters and TV analysts incessantly analyze how many catches T.O. will get in an upcoming matchup, or, more specifically, how many catches T.O. needs to get to keep being a good teammate.

While T.O.'s departure will open up the offense, it also signals the end of an era of media scrutiny that, for all intents and purposes, the Cowboys appeared unable to handle by the end of 2008.

Now that the overwhelming onus of attention is no longer on the Cowboys' star-studded offense, players can finally take a deep breath and refocus on getting to work.

And fans can plan on hearing about a topic that was rarely reported over the "Get Your Popcorn Ready"'s that flowed so relentlessly from Valley Ranch last year: the strength of the Cowboys' defense.

We are talking about a defense that finished eighth overall in total yards per game and finished fifth in passing defense.

We are talking about a defense that boasted the NFL sack leader and defensive player of the year candidate DeMarcus Ware, surrounded by Pro Bowl talents like Ken Hamlin, Terrence Newman, and Bradie James.

We are talking about a defense that didn't get a shred of attention last year due to the media circus driven by Bill Parcells' Lord Voldemort (The Receiver Who Shall Not Be Named).

A great deal of the Cowboys' success in 2009 depends on the strength of this defensive bunch, which suffered key losses in free agency with the departures of Chris Canty and Zach Thomas.

The Cowboys' ever thrifty and wily GM Jerry Jones was able to replace those two key pieces with surprising effectiveness, signing the freakishly athletic Igor Olshansky to replace Canty, and signing NFL ambassador Keith Brooking to replace the inside linebacker spot left vacant by Thomas.

These moves could even be considered an upgrade over the two departed Cowboys defenders who helped to anchor a stout defensive squad last year.

However, there is a Pro Bowl-caliber talent that didn't have the luxury of choice to stay or leave the sensation that is the Dallas Cowboys.

Jerry Jones woke up in an extremely bad mood one morning this offseason, and before they knew it, the likes of T.O., Tank Johnson, and other "bad apples" no longer had a home at Valley Ranch.

Among this group of outcasts was the polarizing Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams, whose prowess and terrifying hitting ability in the run game initially earned him the adoration of many Cowboys faithful.

However, it quickly became apparent that Williams' deficiencies in the passing game overshadowed his strengths as a tackler and a run stopper.

Any Cowboys fan will tell you their No. 1 Roy Williams memory with a hung head and heavy heart, woefully recanting the tale of the heartbreaking 2006 loss to the Washington Redskins on Monday night.

The Cowboys gave up a 13-3 lead in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, and fans watched in horror as Santana Moss sprinted by the static Williams for back-to-back long bomb touchdowns.

Or they will recap the countless games where Jeremy Shockey had 10-15 receptions because Roy Williams seemed always a step behind the Giants tight end.

With Williams gone, Jones ended up going the complete opposite route from that which he chose to replace Canty and Thomas. He signed a young, inexperienced special teams expert from the Jacksonville Jaguars named Gerald Sensabaugh.

A quick look at the other 10 veterans on the Cowboys' defense will clearly elucidate how vital a role this inexperienced five-year vet out of North Carolina will play, and how he could easily make or break a Cowboys defense that was one of the best in the league last year.

The defensive line is composed of Olshansky, fan favorite Jay Ratliff, and the somewhat disappointing yet still effective former first-round pick Marcus Spears.

The linebacker corps is composed of the beastly Ware and the terrifying Greg Ellis/Anthony Spencer combination on the outside, and anchored by the rock-solid James and newly acquired Brooking on the inside.

Newman and promising second-year player Mike Jenkins will assume the cornerback positions, with Pro Bowl safety Ken "The Hammer" Hamlin roaming behind them.

All 10 other positions are filled with accomplished veterans who know how to get their work done and get it done right.

The final void filled by Sensabaugh will absolutely be the strategic attack point for many an offensive coordinator in the early weeks of the season, and Sensabaugh's ability to rise to this challenge will be absolutely crucial.

The scouting report obtained from Scouts, Inc. is indeed very interesting and provides many pros and cons on the young safety, leaving him as the biggest question mark in an otherwise ridiculously solid group.

Scouts, Inc. rates Sensabaugh overall as a 54. 

To put that in perspective, Scouts Inc. gives ratings of 100-90 for "elite players" such as Ware, ratings of 89-80 for "outstanding players" such as the 84-rated Newman, 79-70 for "good starters" such as the 77-rated Hamlin, and 69-60 ratings for "average starters" such as Ratliff.

Scouts, Inc. classifies players rated in the 59-50 range that Sensabaugh falls into as "good backups."

Quite the stark contrast in comparison to the ratings given to the likes of Ware and Brooking.

The second red flag lies further down in the scouting report, which admonishes that Sensabaugh is not a natural two deep safety, with "some stiffness in his hips" that results in slower than average "transitional movement."

In a division with blazers such as Santana Moss, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Steve Smith, "transitional movement" in the passing game will be beyond essential to be able to hang with the inevitable double moves these speedsters will put on the young safety.

Scouts, Inc. concludes this analysis by stating that Sensabaugh is not suited to deep zones, which inexorably conjures up the vision of Moss sprinting by the Oakland native on double moves for seasons to come.

However, there are many bright spots in Sensabaugh's scouting report.

Scouts, Inc. praises his "good size and strength" while lauding his ability at the line of scrimmage to maintain "leverage on the ball carrier" and his "speed to run the alleys."

This would help to cut off big running plays like the two at the end of the Baltimore Ravens matchup last year that put the nails in the Cowboys' coffin and led to the much-maligned "must win" matchup against the Eagles.

Well, at least the fans knew it was a must win game—anybody who saw that matchup will guarantee none of the Cowboys players got that message.

Yet I digress.

The scouting report thereby concludes that Sensabaugh is "best suited up near the line of scrimmage against the run."

To grossly oversimplify, at first glance it seems that the Cowboys replaced Roy Williams with a less experienced and imposing Roy Williams clone who will struggle just as much against the pass as his predecessor did.

However, Sensabaugh had four INTs with the Jaguars last year and seems to be firmly on the upward curve of his career.

The good news is the Cowboys will seemingly not lose the run-stopping and tackling capabilities that Roy Williams was able to hang his hat on last season.

What remains to be seen will be Sensabaugh's ability to: A) Beat out special team staple Patrick Watkins for the starting job (which shouldn't be too tough); and B) Keep developing his coverage and pass defending skills to avoid becoming the weak link in the passing game that Roy Williams was.

The Cowboys have a defense stacked with veterans and athletes who have been there before and know how to get it done.

Without T.O. in town to absorb the copious amounts of media coverage that surround Valley Ranch every year, it will be up to Sensabaugh to prove his critics wrong and provide a stronger presence in the passing game than the much-maligned Williams was unable to.

To make a long story short, Sensabaugh is one Santana Moss hitch-and-go away from bearing the brunt of five years of frustration that Roy Williams infused into that safety spot with his inability to cover...well, anybody.

Cowboys fans and the media no longer have their popcorn ready, and nobody else on that defense besides maybe Jenkins could possibly be portrayed by the media as a weak spot.

Due to the inefficiencies Williams brought upon Cowboys fans over the years, Sensabaugh will have a much shorter evaluation period among the Cowboys faithful, who have become so distraught with the long bombs and big plays that have kept the Cowboys without a playoff victory for 12 years.

While it might not be fair, it's reality.

Sensabaugh will have to step up and prove he isn't the liability that Roy Williams was.

Either that or be ready to face the barrage of screaming media and die-hard fans that inevitably accompany the venerable honor of being a Dallas Cowboy.

With that in mind, I have one message for the young safety from the Jacksonville Jaguars who looks to fill in the most scrutinized position on the entire Cowboys defense:

Good luck, kid.


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