For several years I complained quite openly about the fact that the Dallas Cowboys failed to employ a traditional, space-eating nose guard in the now-scrapped 3-4 defensive alignment. Beyond Jason Ferguson for the first two seasons of the experiment beginning in 2005, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff ended up playing nose guard for most of Dallas’ eight years in the system.
One has to wonder how things would have turned out had Ferguson not gone down for the season during the 2007 season opener against the New York Giants. It was a biceps injury that forced Ferguson out of action which, in turn, forced Ratliff to move inside from his much more natural defensive end spot in the 3-4.
But this was never a good fit for Ratliff, and it really wasted his ability to rush the passer. Ratliff was generally the smallest nose guard in the NFL, and the Cowboys are now paying for that.
It wasn’t enough that Dallas missed out on countless big plays by shoving its second-best pass-rusher into the path of the most resistance. Now, the Cowboys have to be wondering if Ratliff has enough left in the tank to flourish as a defensive tackle in new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin‘s 4-3 alignment.
Ratliff missed much of last season while nursing injuries, and I can’t find it too surprising that he’s being handled with care during the preseason. Ratliff is nursing a hamstring injury he suffered just before training camp opened in Oxnard, Calif. While obviously not as serious as defensive end Tyrone Crawford’s season ending Achilles rupture, hamstring issues have the tendency to linger longer and in highly unpredictable fashion.
With a single preseason contest yet to play, the Cowboys are finally opening up about the distinct possibility that Ratliff might not even be ready for Week 1 of the regular season.
Is this what Dallas needs at the moment?
It’s hard to pin down any single reason that Ratliff could be working his way towards becoming a former Cowboys player. His arrest last January for DWI certainly didn’t help to endear anybody to his presence, but past mistakes have a way of being forgotten if you’re making plays—which Ratliff is not doing.
I’m not saying that this is it for Ratliff. The nine-year veteran could come out with a Pro Bowl-caliber performance in 2013 and it wouldn’t surprise anybody. This idea is starting to seem unlikely, however.
Dallas brought in Kiffin to help make defense a strength of this team, something that hasn’t existed for a number of years now. But to do that, Kiffin needs playmakers like he had at Tampa Bay when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, California. Kiffin has some of those pieces, but one has to wonder who’s going to get the kind of disruption required from the defensive line that any good 4-3 scheme demands.
Right now, it really doesn’t look like it will be Ratliff.
It’s a good thing that the Dallas defense is looking as good as it has without Ratliff. The Cowboys’ starting unit gave up exactly zero touchdowns this preseason and has shown an early interest in forcing turnovers.