Think of the prototypical nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, and the first images that come to mind generally are those of massive space eaters like New England's Vince Wilfork or Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton — behemoths so massive that they can plug up the middle of the line of scrimmage and foul up opposing offense's blocking schemes simply by dropping anchor and refusing to budge.
But think of the game's elite players at the position, and Jay Ratliff of the Dallas Cowboys has to be right at the top of the list. Carrying a listed 287 pounds this season on his 6-foot-4-inch frame, Ratliff is considered tiny to play a position that usually features players on the north side of 330 pounds.
A "who's he?" pick (after playing defensive end at Auburn) in the draft that also brought linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears to the Cowboys seven years ago, Ratliff has revolutionized his position, having shown the football world that a nose tackle can be athletic instead of huge. Through 10 games, he has 28 tackles, just three shy of his 16-game total last season and one short of his season average through the first six seasons of his career. He is surprisingly strong against the run for a relatively slender player (if someone approaching 290 pounds can be called "slender") and is an exceptional pass rusher for an interior player, piling up 26 career sacks.
And, in case anyone thinks he's a track star masquerading as nose tackle, Ratliff is exceptionally strong and tough. He regularly takes on multiple blockers — each of whom outweighs him — and still makes plays and ties up blockers so the Cowboys' defensive ends and linebackers can swoop in and do the same. In Sunday's win over the Redskins, he left the game when multiple players — Ratliff said three — fell across his leg, twisting his knee, but he returned and finished the game.
"He's just something else," Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said. "You hear me talk about some of our better players … a lot of that has to do with their talent, but a lot of that also has to do with how they go about their business. (That Ratliff returned after injuring his knee) says a lot about Jay. He plays with so much passion, and just loves to play the game of football."
Ratliff realized years ago that playing nose tackle means he'll never pile up the gaudy stats that pass rushers like Ware collect each year. But by doing his job in the trenches, Ratliff has become a Pro Bowl regular.
The talent on the Dallas defense never has been in question, although the results this season have been inconsistent. Part of that is a natural learning curve as the team gets used to the scheme brought in by new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who Ratliff said has a future as a head coach. Ratliff said Ryan's system is enjoyable for the players, and said he could play anywhere on the defensive line in the system, if needed.
"We have been coming into our own more and more," Ratliff said. "Players are responding to him more, buying in to what he's teaching. A lot of guys are buying in to what he is saying, and really taking it to heart.
"I think the thing about this defense is that there is a lot of freedom in it. "I feel I fit well in it. We haven't quite done it yet, but I can play across the whole board if I'm needed to do that. It's just fun."
Ratliff said much of his success stems from the fact that he studies others who have played the position, even the original massive nose tackle, former New England star Ted Washington, whom Ratliff called "one of my idols."
"I watched Ted Washington on film," Ratliff said. "Even though he was three (or) four times my size, his first step was amazing. It rivals that of any great pass rusher or any speed guy. That's one thing that I did take from him. You look across the league at all these great nose tackles, and you can take something from each and every one of them. That's kind of what I try to do."
When Ratliff was drafted, many figured the seventh-round draft pick wouldn't even make the team. When he moved from defensive end to nose tackle, there was speculation that he wouldn't be able to handle the rigors of playing inside. Each time, he proved his skeptics wrong.
Now he is taking more of a leadership role with his teammates. Ratliff is not the most vocal player in the Cowboys' locker room by any means, but he is adding that element to his game.
"I really don't believe in pep talks," Ratliff said. "But if something needs to be said, I'm comfortable saying it. I'm still not a rah-rah guy, (though)."
"I say a lot of things to the team," Garrett said. "One thing I can say is ‘watch how No. 90 (Ratliff) practices and plays.'
"That's some of the best coaching I can do."
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