Jay Ratliff, whose game is built on emotion and passion, provides the unit's soul.
Ratliff plays with a relentless effort every snap that the Cowboys will certainly miss if a high ankle sprain suffered Saturday against St. Louis keeps him out for the regular-season opener against the New York Giants.
"He's a tough guy, like everybody knows, and he's made progress since the game," Jason Garrett said of Ratliff on Monday. "He's not going to practice today and he's not going to practice tomorrow. He probably won't play in the (preseason finale against Miami on Wednesday), but we'll see how he is as we start preparing for the Giants."
If Ratliff can't play, we'll find out just how much the Cowboys miss his production. It might not be as much as you think, especially against the Giants. Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore woud probably handle most of Ratliff's nose tackle duties.
Traditionally, the Giants have been a physical team that uses the running game to slowly suffocate opponents. The reality is Ratliff hasn't been that effective against the Giants, who have averaged 124.0 yards rushing in their last eight games against the Cowboys. That's why it should come as no surprise the Giants are 6-2 against Dallas since 2008.
In the last two seasons, the Cowboys are 5-11 when they give up 100 yards rushing.
Even last year when the Giants were the NFL's worst rushing team they pounded out more than 100 yards in each game against the Cowboys. And the 31 carries they accumulated in each game allowed the Giants to maintain offensive balance and control the game's tempo.
To beat New York, the Cowboys must control the Giants' running game, which is Ratliff's primary job. As the nose guard in a 3-4 defense, Ratliff's job is to force a double-team, occupy the blockers and let the inside linebackers run to the ball and make tackles.
It's a thankless, brutal job. Only those with mental and physical toughness need apply, which is why Ratliff has been considered among the league's best for years.
Still, there's a reason the NFL's best nose guards -- Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, New England's Vince Wilfork, Green Bay's B.J. Raji and Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton -- each weigh at least 350 pounds, no matter what the gameday program's roster says.
Ratliff weighed about 285 pounds last season.
The four-time Pro Bowl performer has always used his speed, quickness and athleticism to slither through double-teams and compensate for his lack of size. In previous seasons, the same approach helped make him an effective pass rusher who could collapse the pocket.
But age and injuries the past few seasons have made him less dynamic, though he hasn't missed a game since 2007. After the 2009 season, he had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone spurs from both elbows and, given his lack of size, he's traditionally been worn down by the rigors of a 16-game season.
His sack total has dropped from a career high 7.5 in 2008 to just two last season. During a 29-game stretch from the 13th game of 2009 season through the ninth game of the 2011 season -- a total of 1,299 plays -- Ratliff recorded just two tackles for loss.
Whether you're an All-Pro, a Pro Bowler or a perennial backup, that ain't nowhere near good enough.
Ratliff bulked up from 285 pounds to 303 in the offseason, perhaps an indication he acknowledges he needs more size to handle the pounding. But playing nose tackle is also about using his legs to anchor his body so he can't be moved. A nose guard with a high ankle sprain has a significant problem.
This offseason, Ratliff tore the plantar fascia in his foot, forcing him to miss nearly all the minicamps, OTAs and the bulk of training camp, where he was limited to walk-through practices.
Now, he's out again.
"You could tell that he was working his way back into playing, but he played with that demeanor and relentlessness that we love," Garrett said of Ratliff's performance against the Rams. "He was playing fairly well from what I could tell and he was playing with that passion, but you could see he was trying to get his feet and hands underneath him and getting ready to play in an NFL game."
No one is suggesting Brent or Lissemore can replace Ratliff's fury on the field, but there's a good chance they can replace his production.
Especially, if he's considerably less than 100 percent.