Thursday, January 20, 2011

Space Eating

With 3 teams left in the tournament who run the 3-4 defense, there have been some interesting stories written recently highlighting how things are done in the popular scheme that is experiencing a resurgence around the NFL. As Wade Phillips leaves to try to convert Houston's 4-3 into his version of the 3-4 and as Rob Ryan arrives to install his version of it, I thought it was relevant to check out a few of these stories to help pound home what has bothered me about the Dallas personnel.

They just don't seem big enough along the defensive line. With Jay Ratliff on the nose, the Cowboys have one of the smallest 3-4 NT's in all of football. Let's compare them with the 3 3-4 lines left in the playoffs (we are bound to go by their listed weights, although nothing is less reliable than that). We will list the lines from left to right according to their depth charts. The middle man is the Nose Tackle in each spot:

    Green Bay: Pickett (340), Raji (337), Jenkins (305): Total - 982
    Pittsburgh: Hood (300), Hampton (325), Keisel (285): Total - 910
    New York: Ellis (290), Pouha (325), Devito (305): Total - 920
    Dallas: Olshansky (315), Ratliff (303), Bowen (306): Total - 924

The Milwaukee Journal is actually featuring this very topic this morning as they ponder the reasons for the Packers' defensive success. Many believe it is all Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews. But the truth is that they are free to fly around the ball because BJ Raji and Ryan Pickett occupy a lot of the opposition's blockers.

As you can see, DE's in the 3-4 are all about Ratliff's size. But, the nose tackles are considerably heavier. In fact, if you add in Vince Wilfork (325) and Haloti Ngata (350) or the recently eliminated 3-4 defenses, you can see that they all have "listed" weights way more than Ratliff could ever approach.

And why is this important? They all seem to believe in "2-gap" NT technique - occupy the gap on either side of the center based on reads from the snap of the ball and then just take up space and not give ground. Tim Layden (I reference him again) wrote a great story on NT in the Jan 10, 2011 edition of Sports Illustrated :

Their goal is not necessarily to defeat opponents but to occupy them; not to chase down ballcarriers but to fill space that might otherwise be exploited by them; not to make plays but to absorb punishment so that teammates can make plays.

Read more:

Ratliff, I have always preferred as a DE in the 3-4. I think he is great at beating guys in pass rush, but in traditional run downs, I think he is adequate, but not quite the ideal size. What he accomplishes because of quickness and will power, I think gets worn down over the course of a season, and then over the course of his career. Wouldn't it makes sense to preserve his special traits by targeting major space eaters in the offseason?

I talked with Sam Monson of and he did defend the idea of leaving Ratliff alone: "The thing about Ratliff is that he isn't a traditional 2-gap NT. He's a 1-gap player who is best shooting gaps and blowing plays up in the backfield. But he's shown in the past ('09 especially) that he can be a force from NT doing just that. This year wasn't a good season for him, especially vs the run, but we wouldn't write him off as a NT based just on 2010".

Understand, I am not saying just find fat guys. What makes Hampton, Raji, and Ngata special is their quickness and athleticism for someone that size.

Back to Layden's piece:

"[General managers] realized it was easier to find linebackers than defensive linemen," says Mudd. And while football innovation is fickle—over the last quarter century the 3--4 and 4--3 fronts have traded dominance—the space-eating position for which Rowe (probably) was the prototype has endured. Consider: Hampton, Vince Wilfork (Patriots) and B.J. Raji (Packers) are old-school 3--4 nosetackles (although Wilfork has occasionally played on the end this year). Haloti Ngata of the Ravens is a 350-pound 3--4 tackle. Remi Ayodele (Saints) is a 4--3 tackle. Each has a variety of skills built on a common foundation: They are difficult to push backward, and they will mess up a running game.

"It's not a glory position," says the 29-year-old Wilfork, who was named to his third Pro Bowl this season. "I'm not a quarterback. I'm not a receiver. I'm not even a penetrating three-technique [tackle]. I'm at the bottom of the pile. Sometimes you see the running back get up before me. You just have to learn what plays you can make and what plays you can't make. If I'm getting double-teamed, there's a high probability that I'm not going to make that play."

But somebody else is. "What you want to do is take up two guys," says Ayodele, 27. "One of those two guys is the center, and his job is getting out to block the linebacker. If you stop him, the middle linebacker makes 100 tackles, and then the fans can say, 'Woo, woo, look at the middle linebacker!'"

Ahh, Remi Ayodele. You remember him, right? The Grand Prairie native and Oklahoma Sooner. The Cowboys cut him in 2007 after he served some time on both the active roster and the practice squad.

Josh Brent (315) is one idea, and I think he has promise. It will be interesting to see where he develops. But, it seems to me that given Rob Ryan employing Shaun Rogers (350) in Cleveland that he may have some plans on trying to find somebody with a little more beef to plug up the run.

This, I think, is the key to getting Ratliff to a place where he can help DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer cause more chaos in the backfield.


CrabblerK3 said...

I'm really curious to see what Phillips is able to do down in Houston given their current personnel. I think their linebackers will transfer pretty well (assuming Ryans comes back healthy), but they also lack a hefty NT. They're likely going to go with Okoye in the middle which will be somewhat similar to Dallas running Ratliff in there. Seeing Mario Williams in the DeMarcus Ware role will be interesting as well.

osnfl said...

Maybe Ratliff would be better served to play end, but I doubt it. Rob's brother, Rex, put his defensive end at nose tackle and defensive tackle (when in 4-3 alignments) almost the entire afternoon in New England last Sunday.


One of the founding principles of the old Buddy Ryan 46 is that the center is the weakest blocker on the offensive line. Ratliff, the Cowboys best interior pass rusher, on a center is a huge mismatch in favor of the Cowboys.

Jay Ratliff on an offensive tackle is not as good for the Cowboys. The best way to help Spencer and Ware on the edge is to bring in a 3-4 defensive tackle (5-technique) that can play the run and rush the passer well.

Right now, Cameron Jordan fits the bill. If he has a good Senior Bowl and combine, Cameron could easily be the best player available at the 9th spot of the draft.

Ratliff (NT or 3-technique 4-3) alongside Jordan flanked by Ware would really present offensive coordinators with many dilemmas. As a defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan and the Cowboys could overload the other side of the line with Spencer and another rusher, forcing single blocking on at least two of the Ratliff-Jordan-Ware trifeca without keeping in extra blockers (which of course would mean that fewer eligible receivers are out in a pattern).

Pressure helps the secondary. This secondary needs all the help it can get.

Shawn said...

"A dominant nose can control a game -- increased pressure on the center."

The idea of the 3-4 is that the center is the worst blocker on an O-line. So you put a dominant player right over top of him to beat him up and cause chaos. Thus the NT always has to draw a double-team because the center can't handle him alone.

Sometimes this is done with size. strong 350lb guys can be dominant for sure.

But sometimes this can be done with speed and explosion - as Jay Ratliff does.

What's important is that the nose tackle consistantly dominate the center. I think it's clear that Jay Ratliff does that.

The problem isn't the nose, it's the DEs next to him and the ILBs behind him.