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Former Rocket Church to start for Cowboys

By Nate Pentecost
On August 15, 2012

Following the 2010 NFL Draft former Rockets safety Barry Church found himself as an undrafted free agent with a host of suitors vying for his services.

Impressed with their level of interest, the four-time, first-team All-Mid-American Conference honoree chose the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he inked a three-year deal.

Church started just one game his first two seasons but played a significant role in special teams and spent time in substitution packages on defense.

Dallas capitalized on Church’s scheme versatility, lining him up at safety for his coverage skills, but also sending him in at linebacker against the run because of his size and tackling ability.

“It does show my versatility, and if you can do more for the team, you’re going to stick around longer,” Church said. “It makes my value go up.”

The Cowboys will look to benefit from Church’s array of talents in 2012, and in the final year of his contract, it appears that they will do so by making him the fourth player in as many seasons to get a crack at the safety spot opposite veteran Gerald Sensabaugh.

“It was definitely a rough path coming undrafted out of Toledo. It was a long road but I’ve worked hard, earned my stripes my first two years going through special teams and being that back-up guy who fills in,” Church said. “Now I have my opportunity, maybe, to start for the Dallas Cowboys so I’m definitely trying to take full advantage of that.”

Dallas head coach Jason Garrett preached competition at all positions this offseason, however, Church has seen little of that at safety since training camp began July 31. Free agency pickup Brodney Pool failed the team’s conditioning test before being cut and rookie Matt Johnson is still learning the playbook while recovering from a hamstring injury that relegated him to the Physically Unable to Perform list until late last month.

Church has shined regardless, making highlight reel plays, including an interception off franchise quarterback Tony Romo the first day of camp. In the five days following, while taking every first-team snap at safety, he picked off another pass and broke up four more to go with a quarterback hurry. Before a preseason snap had been taken, Church had already become a virtual lock to start at strong safety this season.

“It’s my second year in [defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan’s system and I feel like I know it pretty well now so it’s allowed me to be more confident in my game,” Church said. “[The Cowboys] have seen that they can have a lot of confidence in me and my game. They saw that the first week of camp and they decided to go with me and that just makes me want to play harder, knowing the organization has my back.”

Church took steps in pursuit of earning the starting job during Organized Team Activities this offseason, working with Sensabaugh and All-Pro tight end Jason Witten to improve his pass coverage skills as teams increasingly look to involve tight ends in the aerial attack.

“In the offseason during OTA’s I got to cover Witten a lot one-on-one. He’s one of the greatest tight ends ever to play the game so it gave me a chance to fine tune the art of covering the tight end and how they run their routes,” Church said. “Gerald Sensabaugh shared some tidbits on how to play the safety position, like where to drop to in your zone and how to read the quarterback so you can get a better jump for an interception. Those two guys definitely helped me out a lot this offseason.”

Church continued to master the team’s defensive system in the offseason as well. Ryan’s scheme can be challenging for a safety, particularly because it does not cater to the traditional free/strong safety combination.

“It’s more right and left,” Church said. “They want us to learn both, but the strong safety is more likely to help out in the running game and the free safety will be back deep. But with motions and reloads, you’ve got to be able to play both. For a safety in this defense, it’s pretty hard.”

During most of their storied playoff runs Dallas has possessed forgettable safeties, leaning instead on an unusually gifted cornerback rotation.

The franchise has not enjoyed sustained success at either position since Hall of Fame-bound safety Darren Woodson’s retirement seven years ago. The Cowboys have not forced more interceptions than touchdowns scored against them, fielding one top-10 passing defense and consequently earning just one playoff victory in that time.

Upon joining Garrett’s staff in 2011, Ryan brought a renewed emphasis on the secondary to Dallas. Church, Johnson, cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne — the sixth overall pick in 2012 — could all play a hand in bringing Dallas’ pass defense back to elite status.

The five-time Super Bowl champions already tout an All-Pro quarterback armed with a full arsenal of weapons and almost the entire Dallas defensive line and linebacker corps are in or near the prime of their careers. Church and the developing Cowboys secondary are potentially the final piece to a Super Bowl puzzle which has gone unsolved for 16 seasons.

“We have big-time key players on both sides of the ball that can take this team the whole distance,” Church said. “I’m looking forward to the season and what it has to offer the Cowboys.”

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