After all, a 2008 season that started with considerable optimism flickered out in the regular-season finale in a blowout loss to Philadelphia that cost the Cowboys a berth in the playoffs. But Dallas opens the season Sunday at Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers are predicted by many to be among the worst teams in the NFL.
New starting strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh said Monday that he doesn't feel his new team is at risk of overlooking their first opponent, even with the New York Giants coming to town next week for the first game against an NFC East foe.
"The most important game of the season, right now, is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that's what we're going to be focused on," Sensabaugh said. "You hear horror stories like that — people looking ahead at the next opponent. They see a game against a team that's not doing so well, and that team ends up beating them. That happens a lot sometimes, but I think this coaching staff does a great job of making sure (players realize) this next game is the most important one.
"I'm ready to get going. I got a lot of it out in the preseason. I can't wait to get to Tampa Bay, and hopefully we execute the gameplan and we'll win this game."
The Cowboys shouldn't need any extra motivation to be sharp for their season opener, but one added wrinkle in the team's preparation for the game is the fact that nobody can be quite sure what kind of offense the Buccaneers will bring into the game after relieving Jeff Jagodzinski of his duties as the offensive coordinator Sept. 3.
"You kind of don't really know what the philosophy is going to be, but all we can go on is the film that we have, so we'll see, come game time," Sensabaugh said. "But we'll be prepared for any little wrinkles they throw — defense is defense. You have assignments and reads, so they can come out and play a little different offense, but we still have our base defense keys, so it really shouldn't make a that much of a difference if we do our jobs."
However, even with the question marks surrounding the offensive scheme, one thing Sensabaugh said he and his teammates can expect is a heavy dose of the running game, where Tampa Bay features three talented runners in Cadillac Williams, Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward.
"We know that they like to run the ball, so we've got to do a really good job stuffing the run," Sensabaugh said. "They'll take some shots on the passing game, so we have to be prepared for those, but that's first and foremost — stop the run. They like to get their team rolling with the run game, so that's going to be one of our main focal points, I believe."
While Tampa Bay might not go to the air as often as many teams, Sensabaugh is well aware that his new team needs to improve its pass coverage. That's one of the main reasons the Cowboys went after him in the offseason — Sensabaugh had four interceptions last year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, while the entire Dallas defense had just eight.
"That should be passed, by far," he said. "Eight interceptions … with our pass rush, and the guys we have collapsing the pocket and the linebackers whenever they're blitzing — they should provide a lot of pressure to force a lot of errant throws for interceptions. Plus, we have a good, really athletic secondary, so we should get some coverage sacks, too. So like I said, eight interceptions — we should be way far ahead of that. Hopefully we can get around the 18-20 range, somewhere around there."
But while he would like to see the Dallas defense become more opportunistic this season against the pass, Sensabaugh reiterated the fact that the key to stopping the Buccaneer offense — and winning Sunday's regular-season opener — remains stopping the run.
"We watched their preseason games, but the last one was really for the rookies," he said. "So with them firing their offensive coordinator, you don't know what they might come out with. They might come out with something new, but once you know their personnel, they're kind of limited in what they have. We know they have a good running game, so know we're going to have to stop the run. That's their philosophy on offense — you can count on that."
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