IRVING— Seeing Gerald Sensabaugh get turned around while allowing a long touchdown pass on the opening drive of the last preseason game reminded the Dallas Cowboys of why they shopped around for an upgrade at safety this offseason.
Seeing him leap over the center and leap again to block a field goal, then seeing him grab a deflected pass for an interception later in the same game reminded the Cowboys of why they ended up bringing him back.
Sensabaugh’s return was sort of a consolation prize, both for him and for Dallas.
The Cowboys sorely needed to improve the back end of their defense, but team owner Jerry Jones didn’t want to spend as much as the top safeties available were getting. He tried helping the secondary by pursuing cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, then eventually worked his way to safety Abram Elam. Still needing a second safety, Jones turned to Sensabaugh.
Sensabaugh was available because he couldn’t get any of those whopper deals that were going around. He accepted a one-year contract in hopes of getting a longer, more-lucrative deal from Dallas or trying again as a free agent next summer.
He’s off to a good start.
Facing San Diego in the second preseason game, Sensabaugh got tough and wedged his helmet into the belly of running back Mike Tolbert to force a fumble, then made an athletic move to intercept a pass. It was erased because the back of his heel landed out of bounds, but Cowboys coaches considered it good enough to call it a game for the first team after that play.
On Saturday night, in Minnesota, Sensabaugh was involved in three big plays — one bad, two good.
“I guess I was plus-one for the day,” he said, smiling. “I had to do something to make up for the big touchdown.”
Sensabaugh hopes to be more of a ball-hawker this season.
Coach Rob Ryan’s defense is all about forcing pressure up front, which could make for more wayward passes. Sensabaugh had a career-high five interceptions last year, with four coming over the last six games.
Sensabaugh played strong safety last year, which meant he covered tight ends. Ryan’s scheme basically has two free safeties, so it will be up to Sensabaugh and Elam to figure out the coverages. It helps that Elam played for Ryan in Cleveland the last two years, so he’s more familiar with the role.
“I’m learning his play style and he’s learning mine,” Sensabaugh said. “You get to help out on whoever you want, kind of. You just read the quarterback. If he’s looking one way, I have the freedom to just go that way, as opposed to strong safety, where if you’re man up on a guy you have to stay on your man until the play is over. It frees you up to make more plays, I guess. I’m getting used to it. It’s fun.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett stresses winning the turnover battle as much as any statistic, and Dallas’ defense didn’t have a single takeaway the first two games. (San Diego recovered Tolbert’s fumble.) So Sensabaugh’s pickoff against the Vikings was a bit of a breakthrough for Ryan’s group, and the blocked field goal turned out even better because Alan Ball returned it for a touchdown.
Which was more fun?
Sensabaugh leaned toward the blocked kick because of the momentum swing — from the opponent possibly scoring points to his team getting a touchdown.
“I started my career on special teams, and I always feel it’s real important to make a big play,” he said. “So I always try to stress going really hard on special teams whenever I get an opportunity.”
Sensabaugh’s career began in Jacksonville, where his special teams coordinator was Joe DeCamillis. (or Joe D, as he’s known) is now Dallas’ special teams coordinator.
DeCamillis has used Sensabaugh as a bunny-hopping kick blocker before and decided to break out that play again after seeing on tape that the Vikings’ front line tended to drop low to fight off blockers.
With Jay Ratliff and Igor Olshansky making sure those Minnesota linemen stayed down, Sensabaugh made his move. He jumped over the pile of bodies, then quickly jumped up and out to get his hands on the kick.