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The Case for Coverage Safeties, Part III: Sensabaugh Will Crank the Rush Up to 11

Grizz linked to a Wade Phillips interview where he praised new safety Gerald Sensabaugh's coverage skills.  Here's the key graf from Todd Archer's piece:

"Sensabaugh's a cover safety. He can play strong [safety] but he can cover well, so that gives us some versatility. They can't split out a tight end on us or a back. He can play the slot guy and play man to man so he gives us some versatiluty at strong safety that we hadn't had."

I'm sure nobody feels more relief at having Sensabaugh as an option than Wade Phillips and the Dallas outside linebacking trio of Demarcus Ware, Greg Ellis and Anthony Spencer.  Let's take a look at two measures Phillips took last year to deal with those pesky split out tight ends, one by design:

The impressive task was shutting down Kellen Winslow Jr. who made some big grabs in the middle of Dallas’ defense on the Browns' long TD drive that ended the 1st quarter and bled into the 2nd. Dallas used a variety of coverages on him in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, never allowing him to get single coverage on a linebacker or strong safety Roy Williams.

Much of the time, the Cowboys sent SOLB Greg Ellis with Winslow wherever he went. And when I write follow Winslow everywhere, I mean precisely that. Several times Winslow lined up as a wide receiver and Ellis lined up directly opposite him. Cleveland always ran in these situations and used Winslow as a decoy to gain an open an edge to run towards. The only time Winslow lined up as a traditional tight end, Ellis jammed him and passed him to ILB Bradie James, who put a second wallop on Winslow for good measure.

-- "How Do You Shut Down a Star?"  Blue & Silver Report, 9-8-2008

the other out of desperation:

On defense, the patch at SS named Keith Davis finally blew out.  I wrote in the pre-game that we would see Baltimore throw to Todd Heap when they got inside the Dallas 35.  And right on cue, Ravens OC Cam Cameron called a seam to Heap when Baltimore got a 1st and 10 on the Dallas 29 halfway through the first quarter. 

Davis was badly beaten and took an interference penalty to prevent a score.  The Cowboys held Baltimore to a field goal, but Wade Phillips made note of the mismatch and took dramatic action to prevent it from recurring.  Phillips’ problem was he had no viable safety option to cover Heap in this part of the field.  The next two times the Ravens tried Heap on these routes, Demarcus Ware shadowed him in space.

Let the insanity and the helplessness in that last sentence sink in.  The Cowboys had to take their best rusher and assign him a TE because they don’t have a SS on their roster who can provide passable coverage. Who else could do the job?  Tra Battle?  The ghost of Pat WatkinsCourtney Brown?

-- Ravens 33, Cowboys 24:  The Patches Fail, and Some Girders Do Too, BSR, 12-21-2008

One win, one loss.  Two game plans where Dallas had to either protect a healthy but limited strong safety -- Roy Williams -- or compensate for a limited and injured one in Keith Davis. 

In both cases, Dallas compromised its pass rush to handle a flexed tight end.  Against Cleveland, flexing Ellis wide meant Dallas played much of the game with a six-man front, three linemen, two inside linebackers and Ware, against Cleveland's line and two backs.  The Cowboys' sextet won that duel, but what if a team with a superior running attack, like the Giants, or Redskins tried this?  Could Dallas hold up?

Phillips went to the other extreme in the week three Green Bay win.  There, he decided not to sacrifice his rush and run defense against Ryan Grant.  When the Packers went to their base three wideout set, Phillips played three corners man-to-man, with only Ken Hamlin behind them. 

The physical limitations at SS meant Dallas was frequently playing one man short, either up front or in the deep secondary.  In some ways, it's like challenging your coaches to develop 11-on-10 schemes every week.  Some times they worked, but some times they didn't. 

And those flexed tight ends are not going away.  Look at the percentages of pass attempts to  the league's best while lined up in the slot or as wide receivers, from 2007:

  • Kellen Winslow -- 74.5%
  • Dallas Clark -- 66%
  • Antonio Gates -- 62%
  • Ben Watson -- 55%
  • Chris Cooley -- 48%
  • Tony Gonzalez -- 41%

The college-style spread isn't on its way to the NFL.  It's already there.

Sparing the OLBs from coverage duty means we're likely to see even more blitzing this year.  Ellis, Ware and Spencer are all top picks and Dallas didn't invest in them to cover.  This year, without fail, they're going to chase quarterbacks.  Dallas notched 32 sacks from the Washington win in game 10 to the Ravens loss in week 16, an average of 5.2 per game.  Phillips no doubt intends to pick up where his guys left off.

There's no guarantee that Wade's more conventional schemes will be better this season, but Sensabaugh's addition means the '09 Dallas secondary is already more complete than last year, whether the team picks another safety high in the draft or not.


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