The Cowboys are going into the bye week with as many question marks as which they entered the 2012 season. Four games in and even the most eternal of optimists now have to question exactly what this team can accomplish on the season. Injuries ruled the offseason for Dallas and have been as much a part of the first quarter of the year that has them currently sitting at 2-2 yet feeling below average.
At last, though, it appears that there is help on the way. Today, in the lone practice of the week before the team has four consecutive days off, the Cowboys saw the return of NT Jay Ratliff (ESPN), an integral part of the team's defensive strategy.
Ratliff is a penetrating, undersized nose tackle that relies on quickness to create pressure as opposed to volume and brute force. Unfortunately injuries limited him for the last half of 2011 and a high ankle sprain has held him out of '12 to this point.
He has been replaced in the lineup by Josh Brent, who has done an admirable job of filling in. However, Brent is no Ratliff. Although he is getting older and has not produced the sack totals of his past, Ratliff continues to get pressure on the quarterback at an elite level. He led all 3-4 NTs in quarterback pressures in 2011 (sacks + hits + hurries); that total was good for 10th amongst all defensive tackles.
There has been plenty of speculation over the past few years about Ratliff shifting out to defensive end, a position thought to take better advantage of Jay's skill set. With Brent playing well clogging up the middle along with Rob Ryan's creative scheming that meme will undoubtedly rise again.
While Ratliff practiced, DeMarcus Ware (hamstring) John Phillips (ankle), Bruce Carter (hip), Chris Jones (knee) and Anthony Spencer (pectoral muscle) did not. Their absence will be more concerning if if continues after the four-day break.
Rob Ryan will have another chess piece returning to the board, as starting DE Kenyon Coleman returned to practice after missing the last two games with a knee injury. Also returning to the shells practice were rookie safety Matt Johnson (hamstrings) and starting center Phil Costa.
When Costa left the opening game of the season three plays in due to his back injury flaring up, Dallas inserted newly signed Ryan Cook into the lineup. Costa's return could signal the reshuffling of the Cowboys offensive line, as fans and coaches alike have been disappointed with the performance of free agent RG Mackenzy Bernadeau.
Both Cook and Costa have experience at the guard position.
Dallas also has an open roster spot after releasing CB LaQuan Lewis on Tuesday. For the record, interior lineman Kevin Kowalski will not be eligible to return from the PUP until after Dallas plays the Baltimore Ravens in week 6.