Not too long ago, I posted a somewhat-controversial article arguing that Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff’s best days are behind him. The reasoning was that Ratliff’s career output, in terms of percentage of peak production, matches up extremely closely with past defensive tackles. And the average defensive tackle has historically saw a major decline in play during his age 31 season. Ratliff turned 31 in August.
Now it isn’t as if 31 is some magic cutoff after which a player can no longer perform. Lots of great defensive tackles have played well even into their mid-30s. The point, though, is that the odds are against him, and Ratliff’s steady decline over the past few seasons show that he’s wearing down. Actually, stats suggested Ratliff was in store for only around 20 tackles and a pair of sacks before his injury kept him out of Week 1.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Ratliff was really never meant to hold up inside. I think a lot of media and fans have believed that Ratliff thrived because he’s played nose tackle, when really he’s been a sensational player in spite of being forced to play inside with the big boys. Look at some of the players many consider to be the top 3-4 nose tackles in the NFL—Haloti Ngata, Vince Wilfork, Alan Branch—none of those guys are listed under 330 pounds. Even quick, explosive 4-3 defensive tackles like Ndamukong Suh weigh 20 pounds more than Ratliff.
By no means do I think Ratliff should be benched—he’s still an above-average defensive lineman. Rather, I think the long-discussed position switch—moving Ratliff to defensive end—is the way to go. The Cowboys certainly have capable replacements. Sean Lissemore may very well be the Cowboys’ second-best defensive lineman, and although he too is undersized, he’s a young, more energetic version of Ratliff. Josh Brent is the prototypical space-eating nose tackle, and he’s shown the ability to hold his ground against the run.
Last week against the Giants, Lissemore and Brent did a fine job filling in for Ratliff. The Giants were completely incapable of getting any sort of push inside, and a lot of that had to do with Lissemore and Brent. I tracked the duo as combining for four tackles on 50 total snaps between them. That might not sound like a lot, but an 8.0 percent tackle rate from the nose is extraordinary.
Most importantly, moving Ratliff to the five-technique would instantly upgrade the ‘Boys in both the running and passing games. Ratliff doesn’t hold up well against the run inside, but he wouldn’t be undersized at end. His penetrating, gap-shooting style of play is a whole lot more valuable out on the boundary. Plus, there’s no rule that you can’t bring Ratliff back inside in passing situations.
With Jason Hatcher and Ratliff receiving the majority of the defensive end snaps and Lissemore and Brent rotating inside based on down-and-distance, the Dallas defense, as we witnessed last Wednesday, could really take on a whole new look.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
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