Jay Ratliff is one of the most interesting defensive lineman in the NFL. He came into the league as a seventh-round pick and had to fight his way onto the field. Ratliff earned his playing time as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. He plays a physical position that doesn't receive much recognition from ESPN and the NFL Network, but the nose tackle is one of the most important players on the defense.
Jerry Jones rewards hard work, and he acknowledged that Ratliff has been a big part of this team when he gave him a early contract extension just a few days before the team opened the 2011 season.
Did the Cowboys make a mistake by giving a 30 year old player a five-year extension worth $40 million, including $18 million guaranteed? Ratliff will be 36 years old in 2017, so you have to wonder if this will become a contract that eventually hurts the franchise.
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Ratliff is unique because of his size (6-4, 287), which remains a hot topic of discussion for Cowboys fans. It was very surprising when we found out last summer that Ratliff was actually losing weight instead of beefing up. In 2010, Ratliff tipped the scales at 310 pounds, but dropped 18 pounds and showed up to camp in 2011 at 287 pounds.
The weight issue is a logical argument that does hold ground in the Ratliff argument. Jimmy Kempski (JimmyK) of Blogging The Beast wrote a very interesting article about Ratliff this past March.
However, Ratliff turns 31 in August, and over the past six seasons, including the playoffs, Ratliff has played 98 games, missing just two. He did so playing NT in the Cowboys’ 3-4 front at a weight far lower than normal for his position. In fact, the average weight for the projected 3-4 starting NT’s around the league is 325 lbs. Ratliff is listed at 285 lbs, or 40 lbs lower than the average:
The size disadvantage cannot be ignored when discussing Ratliff. Below I listed the height and weight listings of the more popular nose tackles around the NFL.
- Casey Hampton 6-1, 325
- Alameda Ta'amu 6-3, 348
- Vince Wilfork 6-2, 325 (yeah, sure)
- Sione Pouha 6-3, 325
- Paul Soliai 6-4, 355
- B.J. Raji 6-2, 337
- Terrence Cody 6-4, 349
- Haloti Ngata 6-4, 330
- Dan Williams 6-2, 327
- Antonio Garay 6-4, 320
- Isaac Sopoaga 6-2, 330
There isn't one nose tackle under 300 pounds on that list. That just goes to show you how rare a player like Ratliff is. His game relies on using great technique and his freak of nature athleticism to beat offensive lineman who have a serious weight advantage against him. That is just beastly for Ratliff to play his position like that.
Jean-Jacques Taylor wrote a very good article about Ratliff recently for ESPNDallas. Below I will quote some of the article, but look at the some of the cold hard truth that Taylor is presenting in his article.
Traditionally, the Giants have been a physical team that uses the running game to slowly suffocate opponents. The reality is Ratliff hasn't been that effective against the Giants, who have averaged 124.0 yards rushing in their last eight games against the Cowboys. That's why it should come as no surprise the Giants are 6-2 against Dallas since 2008.
In the last two seasons, the Cowboys are 5-11 when they give up 100 yards rushing.
Even last year when the Giants were the NFL's worst rushing team they pounded out more than 100 yards in each game against the Cowboys. And the 31 carries they accumulated in each game allowed the Giants to maintain offensive balance and control the game's tempo.
The statistics brought up by Taylor really hit home for me. Has Ratliff been more of a liability than a weapon against the New York Giants?
It's a fair question, considering Taylor has the statistics to back up his claim. The Giants have really owned the Cowboys since 2008, there is no way around it. We need to start doing a better job up front if we want to start beating them again.
Taylor also goes on to point out the lack of plays made in the backfield by Ratliff.
But age and injuries the past few seasons have made him less dynamic, though he hasn't missed a game since 2007. After the 2009 season, he had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from both elbows and, given his lack of size, he's traditionally been worn down by the rigors of a 16-game season.
His sack total has dropped from a career high 7.5 in 2008 to just two last season. During a 29-game stretch from the 13th game of 2009 season through the ninth game of the 2011 season -- a total of 1,299 plays -- Ratliff recorded just two tackles for loss.
Whether you're an All-Pro, a Pro Bowler or a perennial backup, that ain't nowhere near good enough.
Two tackles for loss? That's not what we expect from a player like Jay Ratliff, the fiery and emotional leader of our defense.
After tearing the plantar fascia in his foot during the offseason, Ratliff is now suffering from a high ankle sprain that could prevent him from playing in the season opener in New York, possibly longer. It is the type of injury that can linger because Ratliff relies on his footwork to win battles against offensive lineman.
The Injuries are starting to pile up for him already this season, but those injuries do open the door for the younger players on the team to step up and seize the moment.
The Young Guns
This is where Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore come in. Brent may not be in the same class of the nose tackles mentioned above, but his size (6-2, 320) does put him in that category of the larger and more prototypical nose tackles.
Lissemore has the size (6-4, 306) similar to what we see in the five-technique defensive ends in the 3-4 defense. But the Cowboys have rotated him all over the defensive line, playing him on the nose and at end.
Due to his versatility, it's not out of the question to see Lissemore take on a larger role with the defense in 2012. Lissemore talked about his versatility and stepping up in the absence of Jay Ratliff.
"I’ve prepared myself at nose tackle, left end, right end, dime, nickel, everything," Lissemore said. "Depending on the situation in the game, that’s where I’m going to be playing. That’s a role that I embraced. It’s necessary and I’m ready to step up in that role."
Lissemore as talked about the nuances of playing the nose tackle position and outlines some of the differences between defensive end and nose tackle.
"It is different," Lissemore said. "Nose is a little bit less space. It’s quicker reads, different blocks. Obviously it’s a little bit harder to pass rush. End, you’ve got a little bit more space, a little more time to react, but it’s easier to pass rush, so they’re two different worlds. You’ve got to adjust to them, but if you can, you can excel at both."
"It’s a little bit more of a man’s world at nose, I think."
Lissemore has a lot in common with Ratliff. Both were college defensive ends who have a mean streak to their game and possess a relentless motor. They were also both seventh-round draft picks, so maybe the Cowboys have found another diamond in the rough? You can't help but think that the Cowboys have another Ratliff right now on the roster in the form of Sean Lissemore.
Brent on the other hand believes that the so called "space eaters" are a dying breed and that the new prototype at nose tackle will become Jay Ratliff. I don't necessarily agree with him because players like Ratliff are like superheroes that don't come around too often.
"Jay sets the standard very high," Brent said. "The days of space eaters I think are over. Jay is that new trend. You’ve got to have big guys, but guys who are athletic and guys who can move and make plays. Yeah, you’ve got to take two gaps, but you’ve got to be able to get off that block and make a tackle."
Is Brent ready to step up and take on the role of the starter? He may not be ready to carry the bulk of the snaps, but one thing that Brent doesn't lack is confidence.
"Jay’s helped me throughout my career," Brent said. "As long as I’ve been here, he’s tried to help me as much as possible. Watching him on film, in practice and in games I’ve learned so much. So I’m pretty prepared and I’m pretty ready to step up and take on this role."
With Ratliff turning 31, it's probably time to consider the possibility of him not reverting back to his All-Pro form. Of course when healthy he is going to be one of the best players at his position, but you have to worry about Ratliff finally beginning to wear down.
Brent and Lissemore offer the Cowboys two different type of players that they can utilize at the nose tackle position. Each player is young and has a unique skill set that translates well for how Rob Ryan wants to run his defense. I love me some Jay Ratliff, but I am tempering my expectations for him this season. Instead of setting the bar high on Ratliff, I am going to expect more production from our young guys.