Friday, June 05, 2009

Spagnola: Working Hard To Mend Last Line Of Defense


CARRLLTON, Texas - Much will be made over the Cowboys actually practicing the "Razorback" formation for two plays out at OTAs on Thursday, as Wade Phillips cutely called it, with wide receiver Patrick Crayton taking the controls, Tony Romo flanking out and Felix Jones lurking.

And, too, whatever WHN (What's His Name) has said in Buffalo, and who said what here in response, and that owner Jerry Jones says he does pay attention to what the Cowboys receiver formerly known as "the player" says.

Great, but none of that, I promise you, will have anything to do with the Cowboys either winning their first playoff game in 13 seasons or the franchise-record draught expanding.

This will: How the safety position pans out, because over the past couple of seasons safety around these parts has been an oxymoron. More like the Twilight Zone. You just never knew.

So the Cowboys have restructured, thankfully. Gone is Roy Williams. Gone is Keith Davis. Gone is Tra Battle. Hanging on for dear life is Pat Watkins. The only holdover with a modicum of security is Ken Hamlin, though even the veteran's play was spotty at times last year.

Newcomers springing hope abound. The Cowboys signed former Jacksonville starter and unrestricted free agent Gerald Sensabaugh. They signed fourth-year free agent Jerome Carter, a former fourth-round draft choice who played in 38 games over three seasons with the Rams before a late cut following training camp last summer left him inactive all year.

That isn't all. They started drafting. First came Cincinnati's DeAngelo Smith in the fifth round, a sometimes corner who will play safety for the Cowboys. Not too much later in the fifth the Cowboys added another safety, Clemson's Michael Hamlin.

Still that wasn't enough. Second-year cornerback Alan Ball is adding safety to his résumé, trying to make this team as a dual-purpose defensive back. And Courtney Brown, once a cornerback the Cowboys moved to safety two years ago, is another guy trying to make this team as an either-or guy.

This might make you just as uneasy over the safety position. Because at first blush, it would seem only Ken Hamlin knows anything about what he's doing back there.

Motion to object, your honor.

"I feel good about this group," said secondary coach Dave Campo, which he probably couldn't say much of the time last year, especially after Williams broke his arm a second time, Watkins' neck problems landed him on IR, Davis pushed himself through the final half of the season playing with one injury after another, and Battle showing up one day and playing the next.

Sensabaugh appears to be a player, and even though these OTA workouts are in shorts and T-shirts, this coaching staff seems sold on the sixth-year player who turns 29 next Saturday. As Jones said during the Thursday workout at Standridge Stadium, "The coaches brag on him a lot."

He's an every-down safety with better coverage skills at strong safety than the Cowboys have had since Darren Woodson last played in 2003. Better than that, he's also capable of moving up into the slot linebacker on the dime that Anthony Henry was handling last year when all were healthy - and eligible.

Granted the draft choices are but fifth-rounders. But here is what I like: They are athletic, with decent speed. That means they should be able to cover. Now it's a matter of how quickly Smith and Michael Hamlin learn what to do. But thanks to acquiring Sensabaugh and maybe even Carter, they have time to learn. Maybe you'll see them pop up on the nickel or dime, kind of slowly nurse them into the league.

"And don't forget my two guys at safety," Campo cautioned.

He means Ball and Brown. Both have the cover skills of a corner but the range of a safety. Neither seems to shy from contact, especially Ball, the one-time University of Illinois starter who has grown out of that 175-pound rookie body to more look the part of a NFL defensive back.

The Cowboys have been working him in the slot behind Orlando Scandrick. They have been working Hamlin and Carter, along with Sensabaugh some, at the dime spot Henry played last year. And Smith mostly has been working back at deep safety on the nickel and dime, but Campo insists he could play in the slot, too.

Now, who knows if these guys will know what to do. Who knows if a lack of experience, save Sensabaugh, will eventually catch up with the youngsters.

But this much you can tell, even from watching these OTA workouts in shorts and T-shirts: The Cowboys definitely have added some versatile, athletic safeties to the roster with more than sufficient speed and an ability to cover.

This should prevent opposing offenses from working so hard to isolate the Cowboys' strong safety in coverage. This should aid Ken Hamlin in taking care of his own business, hopefully returning to the aggressiveness he flashed in that Pro Bowl first season (2007) with the Cowboys that helped earn him that $9 million signing bonus last summer.

And if he doesn't, who knows, maybe the Cowboys will have someone capable of goosing him from behind.

This just has to be as optimistic as the Cowboys have been at the safety position in years, especially over the past three when they knew hiding Roy Williams in coverage was a must and worse, found themselves crossing their fingers he would engage in the running game. Besides that . . . .

As Campo points out, if the Cowboys utilize their dime package more, the one with only one linebacker in the middle and six defensive backs on the field instead of two linebackers and five defensive backs on the nickel, they are better equipped to not only cover, but play the run with the combination of corners and safeties on hand.

"If you can, you'd rather find a linebacker to play the position," Campo said, as the Cowboys did last year with Bradie James in the middle and the since-departed nickel backer Kevin Burnett. They have linebacker options there, too, with not only projected starter Keith Brooking, but also third-round choice Jason Williams, nearly hand-picked to play the unique spot.

Now, the stats from last year say the Cowboys finished fifth in pass defense, something head coach Wade Phillips is quick to remind after saying, "I like our secondary."

That secondary not only will include Scandrick, last year's nickel back, but also last year's first-round draft choice Mike Jenkins, who got jerked around in 2008, having to adjust to the capricious Pacman Jones, who probably did more damage stealing reps from the rookie Jenkins than he did good in the end.

And, of course, a healthy Terence Newman will make a difference, too, although a leg strain did keep him out of Thursday's practice.

Again, T-Shirts and shorts so far, but there seems to be a lot less breath-holding going on over this position than there was last year or even the year before, and certainly the year before that when Williams and Watkins/Davis were the starting safeties.

Good grief.

But as Phillips looks at the group, he's already predicting the possibility of playing more man coverage because of the team's upgraded speed at corner and safety. Campo fears the injury to the front-line guys less, "because I feel we have guys to plug in there, and I didn't feel like that all the time last year."

And if that is the case, then that means upgraded competition for not only playing time but just to make this 53-man roster, something the Cowboys have really needed over the past few years at safety, which too many times afford far too little.

"Safety, absolutely, that will be a battle," Campo said.

Alas, a good thing, maybe finally enough substance at safety to prevent the Cowboys from crossing over too many more times into the Twilight Zone.