- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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The last time he was hanging around Valley Ranch, he was a rookie trying to make the team on special teams and earn snaps on defense.
That was 2006, and now Elam has returned more mature and dependable, playing for coach Jason Garrett.
This season, Elam has solidified a defensive secondary that had troubles covering receivers last year.
Elam is the main signal-caller. He gets the secondary lined up, and keeps the lines of communication open between the defensive backs and the linebackers. Elam also makes plenty of plays on the field.
There is less pointing of the fingers among the secondary, and there is less yelling at the coaches from the defensive backs than in years past.
This is not to say Elam has solved all the problems; the Cowboys still have allowed 31 plays of 20 or more yards this season. But there is a comfort level with Elam.
"He's been very good. Very good," Garrett said. "He has a very good understanding of our defense and what we want to do, and not only does he have it for himself, but he does a good job getting that information to everybody and helping us make adjustments on the back end."
Elam spent two seasons under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his defensive scheme in Cleveland. When the Cowboys signed him this summer as a free agent, many players couldn't wait until he joined the team so they could pick his brain as to how Ryan runs his scheme.
"I think everybody basically is up to speed," Elam said. "Sean Lee is doing a good job directing us and leading us on the defensive side. Gerald [Sensabaugh] is outstanding with his communication. The cornerbacks are understanding what's expected of them. I think all in all our defense is jelling and we're playing well right now."
One thing Ryan loves out of his secondary is run support. Yes, he expects the front seven to stop the run, something the Cowboys did for a few weeks when they were ranked No. 1 in the league in run defense, but there are times Elam or Sensabaugh flies up to the line of scrimmage and makes a stop, too.
Elam is fifth on the team in total tackles and tied for second with four tackles for loss. He had a team-high six tackles this past week against Buffalo. His strong play has rubbed off on Sensabaugh, who moved from strong safety to free safety and is playing relaxed as well. Sensabaugh is second on the team in tackles.
"When you have a guy like that, that's only going to help the other guys on the back end," Garrett said. "Gerald has to communicate as well. We have to communicate the linebacker level. When you have a guy who's got a real good understanding of it and is so decisive back there, that's going to help everybody play better."
For all the free-agent signings this summer, Elam's might have been the biggest for the Cowboys. He's been a welcome addition around Valley Ranch because of his professionalism on and off the field.
As the Cowboys enter the final two months of the season, Elam has a chance to reach the postseason for the second time in his career. But this time, he'll be a productive player instead of a backup.
"It's a very exciting time for me," Elam said. "This is probably the most enjoyable time. If I make the playoffs, it will be the second time for me, but it will the first time as an impactful player on the team."
Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.
Safety Abram Elam brings calm, communication to Cowboys' defense.