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Cowboys DT Deja Vu: A Big Cat and a Big Rat

The current Dallas Cowboys' coaching staff has a direct connection to the staffs from the glory days of the '90s.  Secondary coach Dave Campo coordinated the defense in '95, the last time the Cowboys won a title.  Current OC Jason Garrett was Troy Aikman's backup that year, and in the second Super Bowl season in '93.  Garrett therefore played under for both Norv Turner and Ernie Zampese.

The carryover has me watching tapes of those Triplets-led Cowboys, to note schematic differences and similarities between Garrett's offense with Tony Romo and Turner's and Zampese's with Aikman at the controls.

Last night, I watched the '95 divisional playoffs win over the Eagles and was immediately distracted by a player on the opposite side of the football.  Leon "the Big Cat" Lett dominated the Eagles interior line in that 30-11 win.  He also showed a dramatic resemblance in size, physique and game to the current anchor of Dallas' interior line, Jay "The Big Rat" Ratliff.

Debates frequently erupt on site about Ratliff's ideal role.  Should he stay at nose tackle at a "small" 303 lbs.?  Would a move to end benefit his game and add length to his career?  Watching Lett, I felt I was watching Ratliff in a different jersey, and saw confirmation that Ratliff is precisely where he needs to be.

Their careers have followed similar paths.  Both were unheralded 7th-round picks.  Ratliff from Auburn and Lett from tiny Emporia State in Kansas.  Lett was 6'6", 295 lbs. at his peak.  Ratliff is a slightly shorter, stouter player, but his 6'4" 303 lb. frame is very similar.  Both are what scouts call "high cut" meaning they have long legs and relatively short torsos. 

Both players' games are based on quickness, hustle and leverage;  both Lett and Ratliff have long, powerful arms and beat linemen with superior reach.  After Dallas beat the Green Bay in the '95 NFC Championship Game, Packers left guard Adam Timmerman said of Lett, "long arms.  I've got to get me some of those."

Both play(ed) similar positions on the Cowboys line.  As I have noted, Ratliff plays a "one technique" in Dallas' base 3-4, lining up on one of the center's shoulders.  He will flop from one side to the other pre-snap to throw off blocking schemes but is kept shaded so that he can attack gaps and penetrate the line of scrimmage. When Dallas plays nickel, Ratliff will line up as a three technique, on the outside eye of a guard. 

In '95, Lett flopped between both of these positions on the line.  Campo's 4-3, which had more pre-snap movement than Dave Wannstedt's and Butch Davis', had one tackle at the three technique and the opposite tackle on a slant at the center's ear-hole.  Lett would sometimes line up outside a guard's shoulder, and put Russell Maryland or Chad Hennings in the one-technique spot, or the tackles would swap just prior to the play, with Lett sliding inside over the center's shoulder and the other DT moving wider. 

From an interior lineman's perspective, there's little difference in the way that Ratliff and Lett are/were used.  Ratliff gets more snaps over the center on first and second downs, as the lone tackle in his scheme.  Beyond that, Ratliff and Lett attack tackles the same way.  On passing downs, there is no difference to how they performed. 

When he's in a sarcastic mood, Wade Phillips will dismiss differences between the 3-4 and the 4-3, saying that one has four players with their hand down and his scheme has three.  From an interior lineman's perspective, this makes some sense.  If you were to put Ratliff and Lett in time machines and swap them, each could probably step into the others role and perform at a high level.  It doesn't matter if Dallas has a big cat or a big rat chasing the quarterback.  They both know how to catch him.

Next:  One man, three roles: how Garrett uses three players to play Daryl Johnston.

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