Ratliff a center's nightmare

Jay Ratliff of the Dallas Cowboys reacts after he sacked Donovan McNabb on November 8, 2009. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

IRVING, Texas - For Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff, going against an inexperienced center would seem to be a mismatch.

Then again, it's usually a mismatch, no matter who lines up across from Ratliff.

The Eagles' Nick Cole will be nose-to-nose with Ratliff when he makes his first NFL start at center Sunday. If Ratliff dominates the head-to-head battle the way it appears on paper, the Cowboys' defense could have a field day.

"His role is critical every week, whether he's playing against a Pro Bowler or the next guy," Cowboys linebacker Bradie James said. "When he plays well, we're having fun. That's just what his position entails."

Ratliff, who was unavailable to reporters the last two days, has been having a lot of fun since changing positions. He was drafted in the seventh round (224th overall) as a pass-rushing defensive end in 2005.

He got his big break in 2007 filling in at nose tackle when Jason Ferguson was lost for the season. The next year, Ratliff's first full season to start, he made the Pro Bowl.

He earned Pro Bowl honors again this season with 81 tackles (eight for losses), four sacks and 31 pressures.

"He's got great quickness, he's got power, he's explosive," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said. "He's in the Pro Bowl and that's another guy that came from a late-round pick. He's earned his way there and everybody's noticed him, so I think that's even more impressive. . . . It doesn't matter where he's drafted, he's a heck of a player."

Ratliff is 6-foot-4 but considered undersize for a nose tackle at 303 pounds. Yet his uncommon strength allows him to control the line of scrimmage and his quickness makes him a pass-rushing threat. Ratliff had 7.5 sacks last season and led the Cowboys with 31 pressures.

"There aren't many nose guards that are going to be a real-good pass rusher and he's certainly one of those guys," Phillips said.

He showed all of his talents the last time the Cowboys and Eagles met, a 20-16 Cowboys win at the Linc. Ratliff had two of the three sacks of Donovan McNabb, in addition to two hurries and eight tackles.

Last week against Washington, Ratliff turned in another multi-sack performance. He had two sacks, a hurry and six tackles.

That was when Ratliff was working against veteran Redskins center Casey Rabach. The Eagles lost their veteran center, Jamaal Jackson, to a knee injury last week. Jackson had started 71 consecutive games. Cole will shift to center after having been starting at guard.

Phillips said the Cowboys got a good idea of what the Eagles' protection will look like since Cole took over at center early in the Eagles' win over Denver last week.

He also said Cole played well at center, with one major caveat.

"The guy hasn't played against Ratliff yet, so we'll see what happens there," Phillips said. "Jay's going to give anybody some problems. Sometimes it's quickness, sometimes it's power. We haven't played against him before, so we'll see what he has and what he can do."