The only impressive aspect of the 2012 Dallas Cowboys, thus far, is the play of the defense. Without this side of the ball the Cowboys could easily be 1-3 right now and you could argue that 0-4 would have been possible.
Speaking of personnel, about the only deficiency for the Dallas defense has been the absence of Pro Bowl nose guard Jay Ratliff. A high ankle sprain suffered in the third preseason game has kept Ratliff out of football since—and this was probably a good thing.
In the absence of Ratliff, Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan used a combination of Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore to fill Ratliff’s shoes. I think this has been a huge improvement, for lack of a better term, for the Dallas defensive front.
Yes, the Cowboys lost their second best pass-rusher when Ratliff went down in August. This was expensive in its own way but it also brought an advantage.
This season marks the eighth year that the Cowboys have employed the 3-4 alignment in their base defense. I have pointed out on numerous occasions that it has never been a good idea leaving Ratliff at nose guard given his size and skill set. The Cowboys have never really had a dominant nose guard for this scheme.
Ratliff is a pass-rusher and also a natural defensive end. Ratliff could probably be among the top five 3-4 ends in the NFL. But at the nose guard position he just isn’t big enough to stop the run and this trickles down to fewer opportunities to rush the passer.
Ratliff dropped from about 300 to 285 pounds from 2010 to 2011 and this resulted in some horrendous defensive performances last season. Obviously the secondary was lacking in ways it doesn't now but the bottom line was that Dallas didn’t stop the run very well. This allowed numerous fourth-quarter comebacks by opponents that, when combined with just a few offensive mistakes, reversed the outcome of games.
Brent and Lissemore have brought more bulk to the middle of the defensive line. So far this has panned out pretty well as the Cowboys have only allowed a single 100-plus yard rushing performance by an opponent this season.
You probably shouldn’t have to apologize for giving up 122 yards on 26 carries to Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch, easily the most physical running back in the NFL. But when you consider the deep hole that the offense put the defense in to begin with, it’s much more understandable.
What's sad is the Lynch had just 23 yards on 11 carries in the first half!
In the second half the Cowboys gave up 101 yards to Lynch (and more to other Seahawk rushers) and the scoreboard seemed to keep Ryan a little less aggressive and too patient.
In other words, Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson didn’t have to do very much with his arm because Lynch provided the yards and time of possession to easily keep the Dallas offense more minimized than they already were.
Up next for the Cowboys: tailback Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens.
This game presents numerous challenges for the Cowboys overall, but among the biggest is how the Dallas defense utilizes Ratliff on the defensive line. If most of his snaps in the ballgame come at nose guard on first down then things will not go well for the Cowboys.
Like Lynch, Rice is a strong running back that also has quickness and enough acceleration to make any defense pay, especially when he is in the open field. But even if Rice doesn’t break any long runs against Dallas, the greater danger for a smallish defensive line is this number: 3.72
No, this isn’t Rice’s yards per carry—Rob Ryan wishes!
Rice averages 3.72 yards per carry prior to first contact!
If ever the Cowboys needed size and strength up front, this is the game.
No doubt inside linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter need to have stellar performances in this contest, but staying bigger up front and creating a lot of 3rd-and-long situations might help this revamped secondary get its first interception of the season.
The numbers show that Dallas can probably stop Rice. Outside of the poor showing up in Seattle, the Cowboys have held all other opponents to under 100 yards rushing. That includes New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw and Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin out of Boise St.
In fact, Martin was given the ball 19 times in the backfield in Week 3 and could only tally 2.8 yards per carry. Yes, the Bucs tried to establish any kind of ground game they could in such a close game in which their defense was mostly in control.
But the Cowboys defense responded.
Ryan had better consider the merits of not giving up huge yards on the ground because this is threat number one. He has to realize that his own offense isn’t likely to score many points and so he can’t afford to give up many at all.
Size does matter and I think Ratliff needs to be used a little more creatively and effectively if any kind of pass rush is to develop. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware is on another Pro Bowl pace with five sacks in four games and second place on the roster is counterpart Anthony Spencer with two. Ratliff can help turn this tide but his presence could also knock down the floodgates for a Ravens offense that can score points.
So far, we have already seen $50 million dollar cornerback Brandon Carr playing safety.
It’s no stretch to think of Ryan possibly moving Ratliff around the line in order to create some indecision and confusion for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
But if Ratliff simply walks into his starting role at nose guard while being asked to stop seven to 10 Rice rushing attempts coming right at him, don’t expect big things to happen—unless, of course, you’re talking about Baltimore running plays.
The last time these two teams met was in the final game ever played at Texas Stadium in December of 2008. Needing a win to clinch a playoff spot, the Cowboys rallied to trim a late deficit that they could never completely erase because of allowing the two longest opposing touchdown runs ever at the stadium on back to back plays!
Talk about a curtain call.
The Ravens will try to run the ball and the Cowboys have to stop it. Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis has already made it quite clear that he doesn’t think the Cowboys offense will be able to gain yards on the ground, and he’s probably right.
But the Cowboys have to have the same moxie and this means stuffing Rice and forcing Flacco into using his arm.
Then and only then Ratliff make a difference.