Let me start with a fact that should really hit home.
Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones pays starting nose guard Jay Ratliff as though he is a top 10 pass rusher in the NFL. Jones does this because Ratliff is actually very good at rushing the passer.
In 2011, only one Cowboys defender hit double-digits in sacks. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware’s 19.5 was by far the most on the team. His counterpart, Anthony Spencer, followed with 6.0 and next up was defensive end Jason Hatcher with 4.5.
Ratliff, the second-best pass rusher on the team, tied with cornerback Orlando Scandrick with 2.0.
Let’s go back in time several years.
A young Dallas Cowboys team in 1991 had its challenges associated with beating contenders in the NFL. That team, loaded with raw, young talent, would prove that it was heading in the right direction by not only beating an undefeated Washington Redskins team, late in the season, that would eventually win Super Bowl XXVI, but also made the playoffs and won a playoff game.
On the downside was two road losses to the Detroit Lions, the last of which easily illustrated the Dallas defense's lone weakness.
In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Cowboys essentially got toasted by the backup quarterback in Detroit. Erik Kramer completed a shocking 29-of-38 attempts. The Dallas secondary gave up 341 yards of offense to a team with Barry Sanders at running back. Kramer’s three touchdown passes literally earned him starting quarterback pay. He threw no interceptions.
Allow me to mention that Dallas did turn the ball over four times in both of those losses in 1991. This certainly made things rough as it gave a lot of points away.
They say that defenses travel better than offenses and this is a definite fact. Offenses might very well struggle in loud, intense environments. With that young group this probably should have come as no surprise since this was the second playoff game for the vast majority of the roster.
But the Cowboys entered the offseason knowing full and well what the missing piece was.
Realize that this young defense had surrendered just 69 yards on 12 carries by Sanders in the playoff loss.
And get this: Sanders scored the back-breaking touchdown on a 47 yard carry in the fourth quarter.
In other words, until that one carry, Sanders had just 22 yards for most of the game. If not for the fact that the Cowboys had nothing resembling a pass rush on Kramer, this would have been a close game.
Instead, the Lions won by a score of 38-6.
Well, the very next season Dallas added Charles Haley to their roster just prior to beginning the regular season. I’ll let you do the research on how that season turned out.
I’m not trying to make an appeal to Ratliff to play harder or get better. Ratliff is in his prime and there’s no doubt that he brings everything he’s got on every play of every game.
What I’m saying is that more production from Ratliff is vital for the Cowboys to succeed moving forward because a couple of sacks from his nose guard position will not help the Dallas defense reach the level it needs to be to rise to the top of the NFC East, a division that is loaded with pass rushers.
The Cowboys allowed four quarterback performances of four touchdown passes in 2011. Many fans and analysts, as a result, are crying for better cornerbacks during the offseason. They fail to realize that pressure on the quarterback is the starting point of having a good secondary that can change games.
Jerry Jones is on record recently stating that he no longer wants to waste the prime years of quarterback Tony Romo, strangely indicating that previously he was okay with it. But Jones or defensive coordinator Rob Ryan have to also decide to stop wasting the prime years of Ratliff, a player that could potentially lead the team in sacks.
Future direction for Ratliff on the defensive line determines so many things for the Cowboys.
Do they switch back to the 4-3 alignment? Do they pursue a cornerback with the 14th selection in the 2012 NFL Draft? Do they look for another pass rusher in draft, anywhere? If staying with the 3-4 defense, do the Cowboys finally land a massive, run stuffing nose guard?
These are huge questions the Cowboys have to answer. A defense that does have talent is highly negated by the fact that pressure on the quarterback is not consistent. This is primarily due to the fact that the Cowboys do not stop the run as well as they need to. They are not horrible against the run, but this unit must create more 3rd-and-long situations, and this they do not do.
If Dallas moves back to the 4-3 scheme, then I am all for going cornerback with the first pick. Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick or North Alabama’s Janoris Jenkins would be wise choices. In this situation, you can bet that Ratliff is either playing defensive end or defensive tackle next to Jason Hatcher and/or others who help create problems in the middle of the opposing offensive line.
This is all that’s required to unleash Ratliff from a guy who landed two sacks in 2011, still making the Pro Bowl, to a player who can break double-digits or come very close.
Staying in the 3-4 scheme means that Ratliff needs to move to defensive end as the Cowboys fill his nose guard position with a player like Miami’s Paul Soliai or perhaps a rookie like Memphis nose guard Dontari Poe or Washington’s Alameda Ta’amu. Those rookie prospects just mentioned have to be chosen before taking cornerbacks in the first round.
Moving Ratliff to end in the 3-4 scheme also means that there could very well be a future for Anthony Spencer, despite his not living up to expectations, at least in sacks, as a three-year starter opposite Ware.
I would bet money I don’t have that moving Ratliff to end would equal at least eight sacks for a player about to enter his eighth season. Spencer could end up in the same area or better. It’s all about the opportunities.
You have to remember that the Cowboys have not been a high scoring team the last couple of years and this means many fewer opportunities to rush the passer. Because Dallas does have the firepower they have on offense, opponents make it a point to run the ball as much as possible and simply keep time of possession in their favor.
I say enough of allowing that to happen.
Rob Ryan is the son of Buddy Ryan and the father made a career out of destroying opposing offenses with some of the best pass rushing teams ever seen, highlighted by the 1985 Chicago Bears. Ryan has to know that players have to be in the right spots to make an aggressive scheme work.
Yes, younger cornerbacks should be a top priority for the Cowboys but not at the expense of rushing the quarterback. Division rival quarterbacks Eli Manning and Michael Vick cannot be allowed to get cozy in the pocket and turn in career- or season-high performances against the Cowboys defense, as Dallas Cowboys columnist Mickey Spagnola recently detailed on DallasCowboys.com.
So how far off is the Dallas defense from becoming a championship caliber unit?
Well, that 1991 defense looked miles away following that final playoff loss to the Lions in Pontiac, Michigan.
But in 1992, with Charles Haley in the mix, these two teams met again at the Silverdome. On the way to their first world championship since January of 1978, Dallas completely turned the tables on a Detroit team that reached the NFC Championship Game the season prior.
Can you say 37-3?
It only took one addition over one offseason—and a few more of those Herschel Walker trade draft picks, of course, to reverse the fortunes of the Cowboys.
Heading into 2012, the Cowboys already have their Haley as a primary pass rush specialist. The next step comes when they have another weapon that does get to the quarterback enough to either get sacks on his own or allow others to do the same.
The leading candidate for this role is Jeremiah Ratliff.