Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC East [Print without images]

Monday, August 27, 2012
Ratliff's ankle and the Cowboys' pass rush

By Dan Graziano

Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff sprained his ankle in Saturday night's preseason game, and since the regular-season opener against the New York Giants is just nine days from today, it's obviously fair to think Ratliff won't be able to play in that game. But Ratliff's not wearing a protective boot or anything like that, and the Cowboys are saying they haven't yet ruled him out of the opener.

Ratliff
Ratliff matters because of what he brings to the Cowboys' interior pass rush. And without him they would not be as strong up front. This is accepted fact. But I saw some things in their game Saturday night that intrigued me about the pass rush, and I wasn't alone. Todd Archer writes that he noticed a wide variety of folks pressuring the quarterback Saturday night, with top pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware not even on the field, and speculates that Ware might get more help this season than he's used to getting from his teammates in the pass rush:
Since 2005, Ware's rookie season, the Cowboys have recorded 295 sacks. Ware has 99.5 of them, or 34 percent. When the Cowboys made the playoffs in 2006, '07 and '09, he never accounted for more than 34 percent of the defense's sacks.

Variety matters.

"That's what you need," said Anthony Spencer, who has never had more than six sacks in a season. "With our defense, we want everybody to be able to blitz like that and get to the quarterback from everywhere. You can game plan for one guy. You can try to game plan for a whole team, but you never know. It can help us out in that aspect."

What I saw Saturday night was a defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan who feels freer to try more things in the pass rush this year, scheme-wise. That could be because he feels better about the personnel he has in place, though that's unlikely since it's largely the same personnel he had last year. It could be because, in his second season in Dallas, he's not teaching the basics of his defense anymore and can make things more complicated. It could be because there was a real offseason this year and he's had more time. Whatever the reason, seeing Sean Lee get a sack opens your eyes to the strong possibility that the Cowboys will try more different things on defense this year, and that the result could be a wider variety of ways to attack opposing quarterbacks.

That's likely the best way to ease the burden on Ware and get some other people some sacks -- to move players around in a joint effort to confuse offenses and put your own players in the best possible position from which to succeed. My hunch is that Ryan didn't have as much flexibility to do that last year as he does this year -- for a variety of reasons. And if Ratliff does have to miss the opener, the best way for the Cowboys to attack that problem might just be with variety.