The Dallas Cowboy’s fourth ranked defense is expecting a boost this Sunday in Baltimore. The Rat is back. For the first time in his career talent on the defensive line runs deep. This week, Rat is expected to get a moderate amount of snaps rotating in and out during the game. Make no mistake, this is a big deal.
Ratliff, a former 7th round long shot turned All-Pro, knows how to get it done. Intelligence and natural ability alone didn’t get him to where he’s at. His legendary drive, grit, and determination propelled him to success. On a team loaded with talent but infected with chronic underachieving, Ratliff is a rare bird in this locker room. He built a career on preparation and hard work. Simply calling him an overachiever is an understatement and slightly insulting. Ratliff has the kind of character this team is lacking. Sure, Sean Lee, Brandon Carr, DeMarcus Ware all have character but Ratliff is still different. He was never supposed to make it, but he did, and all from his hard work.
In all fairness, Jay Ratliff has excellent instincts and superior quickness. He has the ability to beat almost anyone of similar or greater size off the ball. It’s not uncommon to see him move faster off the ball than the opposing offensive linemen who actually knows the snap count. The amazing part is he has been excelling at this as an undersized (300 lbs) 3-4 nosetackle. Typical NT’s are heavier (325+) and stouter so they can withstand the constant double-teams play in and play out. It’s impressive alone that Rat can simply survive, let alone thrive given his size and position.
This year Ratliff’s injury forced the Cowboys to look more at Josh Brent, his backup the past two years. Brent combined with Sean Lissemore (who plays DE in addition to NT) have done an admirable job at the NT. Rushing Ratliff into fulltime duty isn’t as needed as once thought. Playing fulltime at NT the past few years have taken a toll on Ratliff. His numbers have clearly dipped and as he wore down, his performance towards the end of each season has been modest at best. He’s needed someone reliable to step in and take a load off his shoulders because the Mighty Atlas can no longer hold this line up alone. That has now changed as he finally has help and isn’t required to play every down. For once he can stay fresh and a fresh Ratliff can simply dominate.
Looking back, Ratliff was miscast from the start. Best suited for a 3-Technique Undertackle (much like Warren Sapp) in a 4-3 defense, Ratliff was asked to play a 3-4 NT instead. He didn’t have much of an option since the Cowboys didn’t employ an undertackle system let alone a 4-3. He would have been a better 3-4 DE too. The DE is given a better chance to rush the passer and that was one of Rat’s strengths. But Ratliff’s best opportunity was to make the team at its thinnest position – NT. Ratliff quickly established himself as a player and a star, eventually making starting NT, Jason Ferguson, expendable 2 years later.
Bill Parcells historically employed a True 3-4 (aka 2-Gap 3-4). His 3-4 traditionally made all three defensive lineman each play 2 gaps along the line. They would demand the double team and play reactive rather than proactive. They would occupy blockers while allowing the linebackers to make the plays. Despite this restrictive system Ratliff was able to make most of his plays by shooting a gap and beating the runner to the hole. He was still responsible for both gaps but he was so fast he could pick either one to break through and meet the runner in the backfield thus disrupting the play.
Secretly it seemed Parcells wanted to change his 3-4 philosophy to a system more similar to Bill Belicheck’s and Wade Phillips’ systems which allow more 1-gap responsibilities from a DE. In that system the defense would employ a 2-gap NT and DE and a 1-gap DE who would serve as the playmaker. In Belicheck’s and Phillips’ systems the playmaking DE was held by Richard Seymore and Bruce Smith respectively. JJ Watt currently plays that position in Wade Phillips system today and look at his success. If the Cowboys had a more traditional (Heavy and Stout) NT, Ratliff could have easily been moved to that playmaking DE position. Unfortunately Parcells had too many other holes to fill so he could never give it too much attention. He accepted what he had and stuck to his predictable 2-gap 3-4 defense and Ratliff was forever entrenched in the middle.
Since Parcells left, it’s been an annual conversation in each training camp to move Ratliff to DE. Fans and media clamor for the change as they see Ratliff’s numbers decline and other 3-4 DEs with similar quickness and skills succeed elsewhere. While the argument is extremely valid, every year it gets shot down and Rat stays at NT. It’s difficult to say if the coaches base this on his limitations when he occasionally plays DE or rather base it on no suitable replacement at NT if he does move. This year Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore filled in at NT while he was out. They did very well both ranking in the top 27 defensive lineman (based on tackles) through the first four weeks of the season. Based on that, could a move to DE be in Ratliff’s future? Probably not. At this point in his career it will be more beneficial to keep him as a NT and a nickel pass-rushing tackle. He knows how to do it and as long as Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan can keep him fresh, he should do well. Remember when Warren Sapp (who possessed similar skills) moved to Oakland and played DE in a 3-4 scheme? He moved from a 4-3 system serving as the undertackle to a 3-4 scheme as a DE. He had the skills to do it but still struggled mightily. The following season he was moved inside to NT and had much greater success. It was still a 3-4 but it was just more familiar to him on the inside. It was just too difficult playing outside after all those years in the middle. It would probably be just as difficult transition for Ratliff if he was asked to move to DE fulltime for the first time in his career.
The DE in a 3-4 is a difficult transition for a veteran DT and will probably produce more harm than good. Sean Lissemore possesses a similar set of skills to Ratliff but he is still young enough in his career to transistion to new positions. He currently splits his time as a DE and a NT. Not that he needs to stop playing inside all together but the best move is to continue to use him as a primary DE because that is where his biggest playmaking potential lies.
The defensive line will be at its best if DT Jay Ratliff and DT Josh Brent split time taking 80% of the 3-4 DT snaps. Sean Lissemore will take the remaining 20% at DT. Lissemore will mostly receive his snaps from the DE position and occasionally in the nickel. Ratliff coming back as a rotational player will be benefical to Josh Brent, Sean Lissemore, and Ratliff himself. They will all be fresh and hungry every snap. The Defensive line isn’t loaded with all-stars but it is loaded with quality depth. Ratliff returning allows them to play to that strength.