Element of surprise suits Jay Ratliff

SAN ANTONIO -- It's tough enough to block Jay Ratliff when offensive linemen know where he'll be. Just imagine the challenge when the element of surprise is added to the equation.

Now you understand why the orneriest member of the Dallas Cowboys is practically giddy about playing for creative new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

"I don't know if I've ever felt this excited my whole career," Ratliff said.

Ratliff can sum up the reason for his excitement in one word: scheme.

As a rare 3-4 nose tackle who is a pass-rushing threat, Ratliff has been fed an increasingly steady diet of double-teams during his three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, in which his sack totals have gone from 7.5 to 6.0 to 3.5. He'll still line up over the center on most downs, but his point of the attack will be a mystery in many of the Cowboys' nickel and dime packages.

For example, Ratliff is the lone defensive lineman in one package, joined by five linebackers and five defensive backs. In practices at the Alamodome, Ratliff has lined up at one spot on the line and moved to another before the snap.

Double-team him if you dare. That probably will result in a blitzer getting a clean lick on the quarterback.

"The best way to describe it is organized chaos," Ratliff said, punctuating the thought with a roar of laughter.

Ryan plays coy when asked about his exotic defensive packages. But he acknowledges the possibilities are practically limitless with a nose tackle as unique as the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Ratliff, who gives offensive linemen fits with his remarkable quickness and relentless motor.

"He can do anything. He can play anywhere he wants," Ryan said. "I don't know if he can play safety, but maybe we should put that in."

The safety idea was a joke, although Ratliff played the position as a 220-pound high schooler. Opposing offensive coordinators won't find anything funny about preparing to try to block Ratliff as a moving target.

Ryan's creativity knows only the bounds of his personnel. Ratliff's versatility opens up a lot of options for the son of Buddy and twin of Rex. So does Ratliff's ability to read protection schemes, which Ryan said is the best he's seen from a player other than Warren Sapp.

The matchup of a three-time Pro Bowler against a confused offensive lineman is an awful sight for a quarterback. It's one Ryan intends to create on a regular basis.

"When you're moving around a little bit more, it's that much more difficult," head coach Jason Garrett said. "I know as someone who is an offensive coach by nature, the identification of defensive guys is becoming more and more difficult. If you create a little uncertainty in the opposing offensive line and in the opposing quarterback's mind, that's going to help everybody. I think Ratliff will benefit from that."

If things go according to plan, Ratliff will be sort of the ultimate bully, a term Ryan affectionately uses for his defensive linemen. The defensive coaching staff will attempt to get Ratliff one-on-one against the weak link of the offensive line as often as possible, whether it's a center, guard or tackle. And Ratliff could occasionally have a running start.

"One thing that we'll be able to do is take a guy like Jay with his unique skill set and put him in the best position to win downs," defensive line coach Brian Baker said. "That may [change] from week to week, depending on the opponent and who we can get him matched up with. Jay gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility in our package."

Ryan's creativity gives opponents more reason to fear Ratliff than ever.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.