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Dallas Cowboys Most Vital Defensive Player in 2010: Jay Ratliff

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Jonathan Bales

Last week, I selected Tony Romo as the Cowboys’ most vital offensive player.  Yes, a quarterback is the easy choice, but Romo’s consistency has made a lot of fans forget his importance.

Selecting the most vital defensive player is much different from offense.  Oddly enough, certain offensive positions are considered “more important” than others (tackles over guards, for example).  That isn’t necessarily the case on defense, at least not to the same degree.

There certainly isn’t one position whose worth is head-and-shoulders above the rest (as quarterback is on offense).  The ‘Boys have a multitude of studs on defense whose absence would be very difficult to overcome.

DeMarcus Ware is a beast and, in my opinion, the third-best defensive player in the NFL.  Mike Jenkins is probably the team’s top cornerback now and represents a rather large upgrade over potential replacement Orlando Scandrick.  Anthony Spencer broke out last season, leading the NFL in quarterback hits.  Veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking provide leadership up the middle.

All of these players are extremely vital to the Cowboys’ defense, but not the most vital.  That distinction, I believe, belongs to nose tackle Jay Ratliff.

The Evidence

Ratliff, who has been kind enough to do some interviews with us in the past, is perhaps the team’s nicest player off of the field.  He enjoys dancing and having “tea time” with his daughters.

On the field, however, Ratliff is a dominating force in the middle of the Dallas’ 3-4 defense.  Check out what I had to say about Ratliff in my 2009 defensive line grades:

Run Defense: B+

We really don’t need statistics to tell us how dominant of a player Jay Ratliff can be on the football field.  Due to the nature of the position, nose tackles generally have a tough time racking up statistics.  Their primary goal is to eat up blocks and allow the linebackers to make plays.

Ratliff is so dominant, though, that he is able to overcome these limitations.  He is very “undersized” for a nose tackle, but uses his speed and athleticism to gain an advantage on blockers.   Pass-rushers gain glory through acquiring sacks, but Ratliff is just as solid against the run.

Pass Defense: B+

As you can see, Ratliff’s sack rate of .82 percent was the highest of any Cowboys’ defensive lineman in 2009 (including the ends). We know he would like to improve upon both that number and his total quarterback hits and pressures, but he is no longer an unknown commodity.  Opposing coordinators game-plan for him, meaning his statistics are even more impressive when you take into account the constant double-teams he faces.

As far as Ratliff’s talent, the proof is in the pudding.  He’s one of the best all-around defenders on the team, but it is what is behind him that makes him the most vital.

The ‘Boys are extremely thin at nose tackle behind Ratliff.  Junior Siavii received 184 snaps last season but failed to acquire a sack or quarterback hit. He did rack up 12 tackles, but to say his overall play is a drop-off from Ratliff’s is an understatement.

The Cowboys do have some new faces at the position, though.  Seventh-rounders Sean Lissemore and Joshua Price-Brent (chosen in the Supplemental Draft), are both 3-4 defensive ends who may or may not transition to nose tackle.  Brent seems to be the most likely conversion, but either way, the lack of experienced depth behind Ratliff is scary.

Now let’s take a look at the backups for the other top Dallas defenders who I listed above:

Ware and Spencer feed off of each other.  The loss of one would certainly hurt, but the other would still be available to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  Further, the Victor Butler/Brandon Williams combination, although lacking experience, seems to be a formidable duo.  They could at least hold down the fort during a Ware or Spencer-less stint.

Veteran cornerback Terence Newman obviously starts opposite Mike Jenkins.  Nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick had a down season last year, but he has the speed and ability to be an adequate fill-in.  The coaches would at least feel more comfortable with him starting at cornerback than Siavii or Brent at nose tackle.

Inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking are vital to the defense, but second-year speedster Jason Williams and rookie Sean Lee sit behind them.  Would either backup be an immediate downgrade at the inside linebacker position?  Yes.  As much as Siavii or Brent at nose tackle?  Unlikely.

But don’t mistake this article for a bashing of the Cowboys’ backup defensive tackles.  Siavii has shown talent in the past and is certainly an NFL-caliber player.

Instead, this is more about praising Jay Ratliff.  His work ethic and level of commitment to the Dallas Cowboys has made the Pro Bowl player one of the best in the NFL.  DeMarcus Ware may be the Cowboys’ best defensive player, but the lovable guy in the center of the Cowboys’ defensive line is the most vital.


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3 Responses to Dallas Cowboys Most Vital Defensive Player in 2010: Jay Ratliff

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Good choice but I would’ve gone w/ ILB. The reason being is the play calling an audibling that is necessary just before the snap.

    Thoughts travel back to the likes of Mike Singletary and his importance on the Bears defense (one of the best in NFL history). Refrigerator Perry was important as were many others, but not like the playcaller of the defense.

    However, the point you made is compelling.

  2. ILB is certainly a cerebral position, but it was the extreme talent differential between Ratliff and his backup which swayed me. If the Cowboys lost Brook or James, they’d still at least have the other vet available to make calls.

  3. VINCE GREY says:

    Could not agree more with this one. I think in a 4-3, with a big run-stuffer at the other DT slot, Ratliff would be a John Randle-level disruptor.

    Even in this 3-4, (Which I feel is inferior to the 4-3, and always will, but that’s a topic for another time.) he’s great, and can be even better playing fewer snaps.

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