In 2005, Jay Ratliff was drafted in seventh round as a defensive end prospect. An injury to then-starter Jason Ferguson in 2007 forced Ratliff to play as an undersized nose tackle, but the result was something no one saw coming. Three Pro Bowls and a First Team All-Pro selection later, Ratliff goes into 2011 as one of the staples of our defense and a veteran leader.
That said, one of the ugly truths of last year’s defensive demise was the waning effectiveness of Ratliff at the nose tackle position. His sack total dropped to half of the numbers he put up in 2008 and 2009. There was little sign of pressure coming up the middle, either from Ratliff himself or the linebackers who should have been capitalizing on his presence. Ratliff saw plenty of double-teams, but there were many times that he was clearly struggling against a single blocker.
To be fair, this probably was not all Ratliff’s fault. Of the men who make up the “front seven” in our base 3-4 defense, four of them (Bradie James, Keith Brooking, Marcus Spears, Igor Olshansky) did little to inspire fear or even much concern from opponents and allowed them to focus on stopping Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, and Anthony Spencer. However, despite these problems, Ware still managed to post 15.5 sacks to lead the NFL in 2010. Why was Ratliff not able to overcome the challenges and also maintain his usual level of play?
Ratliff is listed at 6’4″ and 303 pounds. There are many 3-4 defenses whose DE’s are bigger than Ratliff. Among other nose tackles he’s dramatically smaller, as shown in this comparative list:
All of these men, even those who are several inches shorter than Ratliff, carry much more weight. I’m not trying to say Ratliff needs to bulk up, but rather display that he’s not built like the top nose tackles in the NFL. And though the highlighted Ahtyba Rubin is not a standout player, I included him for a reason; he was Rob Ryan’s nose tackle last year in Cleveland.
With Ratliff turning 30 this August, it’s a very dangerous proposal to keep him at nose tackle and allow the exagerrated physical toll to potentially shorten his career. He looked worn down in the final games of last season and even early in the year never showed much of his former self. Perhaps there were undisclosed injuries holding him back, but even those will become more common if he continues to endure the strain of playing nose tackle.
Fortunately, there are alternatives already on the roster. Second-year tackle Josh Brent showed significant potential last season and has the physical make-up of a 3-4 tackle. If the team finds itself having to pick between journeymen like Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher for a starting job, couldn’t moving Ratliff to end and starting Brent at the nose be the best way to put the most talent on the field?
Here’s another thought; Igor Olshansky is 6’6″, 315 pounds and is known for being one of the strongest players in the entire NFL. We know he doesn’t generate any kind of rush from the end, so why not play this guy in the middle of the line? With that tall frame he should be able to put on more weight. Not only would this allow Ratliff to move to his natural position, but it might actually increase Olshansky’s worth if he can make the transition.
Ultimately I realize that this is only a “base defense” issue and our nickel packages and other Rob Ryan schemes could negate some of my points. But one of the biggest problems this team had last year was in allowing too much yardage on first-down and setting up opponents for easy conversions. As long as we have a severaly undersized player, no matter how talented, in the middle of our line I can’t help but fear that last year’s struggles will continue.