Jay Ratliff will be watching the Dallas Cowboys take on the Cincinnati Bengals from the sideline. Due to a groin injury, Ratliff will miss his third consecutive game. Health is starting to become a major issue for the veteran. This will be the seventh game he's missed this season. Before this season, Ratliff hadn't missed a game since 2004 and he started every game from 2008-2011.
The Cowboys rewarded Ratliff with a five-year $40 million contract back in September of 2011. That contract may become a mistake for the Cowboys in the long run. He is 31 years old and has taken a beating playing the nose tackle position. When healthy, Ratliff does look dominant still. The problem is, can the Cowboys expect him to stay consistently healthy? Everyone begins to wear down at some point. There is no question that Ratliff is a great player, but his body may not hold up for too much longer.
Fortunately, the Cowboys have a legitimate nose tackle on the roster. Josh Brent may not fill up the highlight reel with eye-popping plays, but he does get the job done. For starters, he is more of the prototypical space-eating nose tackle. His size (6'2, 320) allows him to engage multiple blockers and take up a lot of space. In theory, he should open up plays for the guys around him. If Sean Lee and Bruce Carter were still on the defense, Brent would allow the linebackers to fly in and make the play.
Recently head coach Jason Garrett discussed Brent and explains that he is more a two-gap nose tackle.
"He’s a natural nose tackle," Garrett said of Brent. "He’s a two-gapping nose tackle, that’s the body type, but he’s also a pretty good athlete. He can make plays from side to side. I think he’s grown every week. I think he’s taken advantage of the opportunity we’ve given him."
Ratliff is definitely more of a one-gap nose tackle that can penetrate and get pressure on the quarterback. Even though his sack total has been declining, he is still very effective in that role. The Cowboys have always had the pass rushing element at nose tackle, but they haven't had more of a traditional space-eater. Brent is strong enough to take on the double teams, but he is also a pretty decent athlete. If he improves his pass rushing skills, he will be an all-around nose tackle.
The steady improvement of Brent gives the Cowboys something to look forward to in the future. If he can continue to grow as a player, then the Cowboys will have Ratliff's future replacement available. Garrett believes that Brent is taking advantage of the opportunities that the Cowboys have given him.
"He’s really matured as a player," coach Jason Garrett said of Brent. "He’s been a spot player for us in the past, a handful of snaps here and there in each of the ballgames, but because Ratliff has been out for a large part of the season, he’s played a lot more. He’s matured a lot. That can happen with players. You give them an opportunity to play more and some guys expose themselves and some guys rise up and become better players and prove to you that, ‘Hey, I can be a starter in this league.’ I think he’s shown that."
Brent has been a good investment for the Cowboys. The front office took a gamble on him back in the 2010 NFL Supplemental Draft. They spent just a seventh-round draft pick on the talented nose tackle from Illinois. Had he entered the NFL Draft in April, he probably would have been a mid-round draft pick. Considering the demand for a good nose tackle, it's possible that he could have been drafted even higher.
Brent made a huge play when the Cowboys needed it against the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday night. He stripped running back Bryce Brown in the fourth quarter and Morris Claiborne returned it for a 50-yard touchdown. Hopefully he has some more clutch plays left in him. With all of the injuries on the defense, the Cowboys could use more big plays like Brent's forced fumble.
The Cowboys need him to play a large role in stopping the Cincinnati Bengals from getting their ground game going with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Preventing the running game starts up front with the Dallas defensive line. In a difficult season, Brent continues to be another bright spot for the Cowboys. If the Cowboys ever decide to release Ratliff, they will be in good shape with Brent anchoring the defensive line.