Where Will Rob Ryan Play Jay Ratliff? Look to Brother Rex for a Clue

Rob Ryan’s hiring as the Cowboys new defensive coordinator has raised a familiar theme among Cowboys fans.  Here and elsewhere, the Jay Ratliff-to-defensive end meme has revived itself.

I pointed out in a story a few days ago that I don’t think this will happen, and cited a coaches clinic presentation then-Ravens linebacker coach Mike Pettine gave in 2005 on the Baltimore 3-4. ’05 was Rex Ryan’s first year as Ravens DC and Pettine now coordinates Rex’s Jets defense.  The show outlined Ryan’s version of the 3-4, from the reasons why he prefers the 3-4 to the 4-3 and how his Ravens, and now his Jets will play it.

Very early on, while outlining the strengths of the scheme, Pettine and Ryan make this point:

A dominant nose can control a game — increased pressure on the center.”

Ryan’s game plan for this past Sunday’s upset of the top AFC seed Patriots shows how important this maxim is to Rex Ryan’s thinking, and most likely to his brother Rob’s as well.  Rex did the opposite of what so many Cowboys fans advise — he moved his best rush DE inside, to increase his impact on the game.

The Jets are not a dominant pass rushing team, in spite of their press hype and Rex’s bluster.  They sacked quarterbacks just 32 times in ’09 and 40 times this past year.  They lack a dominant edge rusher in the Demacus Ware mold.  Jason Taylor plays OLB, but his better days have long passed.  The Jets sack leader was OLB Bryan Thomas, who bagged 6.0 QBs.

This weakness presented a schematic problem for Ryan.  He did not want to blitz Tom Brady extensively, and expose his secondary to quick passes to New England’s talented young tight ends and slot WR Wes Welker.  Ryan’s default in most situations is to rush four, but how could he get to Brady with his sub-par rush line?

Ryan used two tactics.   First, he rotated a lot of fronts.  He deployed four-man rush lines, three-man lines and two-man lines and rushed a variety of linebackers and defensive backs off the edge.  From a personnel standpoint, Ryan took his best rush lineman, 11-year veteran DE Shaun Ellis, and moved him inside, over the center.

Ellis weighs only 285 or 290 lbs., depending on which source you consult, but Ryan counted on him to hold his ground on plays where the Patriots ran right at him.  Ellis did move around;  when the Jets went 4-3, Ellis sometimes lined up at his usual DE spot, but mostly lined up as a 3-techique DT.  When they went 3-4, he sometimes lined up at his usual 5-technique spot over the tackles, but mostly, he lined up shaded on the center.

Regardless of where he started, Ellis finished inside; roughly 90% of the time, Ellis attacked Patriots C Dan Koppen or the one of the guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connelly.  Even on 3-4 downs where Ellis started wide, he would loop inside and take the shortest route to Brady.

Ellis set the Jets defensive tone.  He dominated any and all of New England’s interior linemen.  Ellis sacked Brady twice in the first quarter, got a few more pressures later in the game, and was a 60-minute menace.  The Jets rotated Ellis to keep him fresh but when the second half started, the Patriots were looking for Ellis every time he came onto the field.

Ellis’ consistent interior pressure meant Ryan and Pettine could blitz when they felt like it, and not out of desperation to harass Brady.  They could mix their short coverages and keep safeties deep behind to prevent the deep throw.  This tactic frustrated Brady when the Jets opened up a double-digit lead, because he could not lead quick drives in response.

“A dominant nose can control the game — increased pressure on the center…”

Ellis showed the power of this maxim.  He controlled New England’s interior three, and helped Ryan’s guys control the game.  Brother Rob now has Jay Ratliff at his disposal.  Rat has 17.0 sacks the last three seasons. He’s arguably the best interior rusher in the NFL.

Rob more than likely wants his nose to control the game too, just the way transplant NT Shaun Ellis controlled the late playoff game on Sunday.

In other words, I don’t think Jay Ratliff is moving anywhere.  Brother Rex and Shaun Ellis just showed us why.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst Cowboys Nation.com at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
Rafael Vela

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  • Turbo

    Interesting…It sounds similar to the Giants strategy when they won the Super Bowl a few years back. I believe they lined up Tuck as a DT and he used his speed against the bulkier, slower interior linemen.

    How would this be countered? Zone-blocking?

  • Salman327

    What’s the consensus (if one yet exists) about Cameron Jordan potentially falling to us? Would he be someone this front office would definitely take a hard look at? I’ve read in other areas that he may not go off the board until #10 (Arizona I believe)

    • greatwhitenorth

      Everything I’ve read suggests that Jordan will definitely be there at #9. Most places have him in the 15-18 range, and I guarantee you that if the draft was held today and Dallas picked him at #9, half of Cowboys fans would complain loud and strong that it was a reach and that Jerry could have traded down and still gotten his man. That could change before the draft, though, especially as I expect Jordan to test well at the combine/pro day workouts, in both strength and quickness.

  • Marktui

    Yeah, he was. Teams figured out that to negate his quickness they just straight up mauled him with double teams for combo blocks. Rat needs to do a better job of splitting the double team and just try and not get blown of his gap. I think he was just trying to much by fighting, but that just creates a bigger hole. But also, with the doubles our ILB’s need to do a better job of making plays since Rat’s occupying two lineman.

    Brooking unfortunately is no longer able to defeat blocks and make plays. I think his good days are behind him.

  • Cowboy78

    Raf, are there any Def Assistants from Ryan’s old staff that would be a good fit?

  • cowboyny

    If you add a player like Cameron Jordan to the group, it allows many different ways the team can take advantage of mismatches. I read that Jordan possesses great versitility where can play every defensive line position. Wouldn’t we love to see Jordan in between Ratliff/Ware and a overload on the other side. If the QB sees a possible blitz from one side, they may have to think about doubling Ware in that formation. Many options with another interior lineman!

    • kameleon_o

      That’s the great thing about someone like Jordan. He would hopefully keep teams from being able to just double Ware and Rat. Gives us one more guy who can beat single coverage

  • Bigman2166

    I am looking foreword in seeing how they use him. There was a owner’s meeting today in Alt. I think that is a reason we have not heard anything on Ryan’s signing.

  • wont this really depend on how Brent comes along, or who we draft? i think Rat will be good wherever he is. if he moved to DE would this decrease him seeing double teams? or would they just slide the protection his way?

    i do think itd be cool to see him and Ware lined up next to each other.

    • Rafael Vela

      Brent is a find. Brent is also green. Needs to learn how to use his hands. Has all the physical tools. Question is, how fast can you count on him?

      • i agree 100% on this, hopefully he’ll come into his own in training camp. not counting on it just hoping for it

        • Rafael Vela

          A lot will depend on the new D-line coach. That will be a key hire.

  • AustonianAggie

    Now that it’s Tuesday and no formal announcement I’m starting wonder what’s up with Ryan’s signing

  • SFcowboy

    Is it just me or do JR’s 2010 stats not support this conclusion? Are we claiming he had a down year? blaming the change in DC? or a lack of creativity?

    3.5 sacks and less than 2 tackles per game doesn’t scream ‘best player lined up on C’…though the devil’s advocate asks…if not Jay then who?

    • Rafael Vela

      Everybody had a down year. How many of Ware’s total sacks came in the final two games? Five? It wasn’t like he was among the league leaders all year. He padded his stats playing an Eagles’ scrub in the finale.

      • kameleon_o

        True. Rat’s big problem seemed to me was in the in the run game. He would get doubled and moved a lot. Other teams just seemed to be able to scheme for him a lot better than they’ve ever done before and we couldn’t get him loose from it.

  • AustonianAggie

    I remember Wade Phillips breifly set up Dallas running a 4-6, and the main point was to get Ratlif on the Center, where he has match up advantages. I dig it

  • JT

    Great write-up, Raf…but didn’t this just prove the exact opposite? Or maybe better put, I read this and came away thinking Ryan won’t officially move Ratliff to DE, but he also won’t just line him up as the NT every time. Seems to me part of the value is to move Ratliff around (similar to how we always called for Wade to move Ware around) to get him different looks and confuse the defense. So should we look for Ratliff to sometimes play DE and sometimes play NT?

    • Rafael Vela

      Maybe he’ll move him a little, but if he’s going after the C every time, he’s still a NT, isn’t he?

      • JT

        absolutely agree. I just thought it sounded interesting that part of how Ryan uses him might be to disguise who he’s attacking — yes, it’s important to attack the Center but if sometimes he attacks the Guards or he changes the position from which he is attacking, then perhaps it just makes it harder on the OL to account for him and easier for him to be disruptive. Who cares what we call him, as long as we’re using him most effectively!

        • Rafael Vela

          Agreed, but he’s already being used in a number of ways. When Dallas goes nickel, he’s a DT. When they went 46, he was the nose. I’ll bet Ryan uses him the same way.