OXNARD, Calif. – Jay Ratliff was an undersized nose tackle when he first became a Pro Bowl player at age 27, and he's undersized now, turning 31 before the season begins.
The difference is, it's easier for a 27-year-old to take the pounding at one of the game's most difficult positions than it is for a 31-year-old, specifically one who has been hobbled by elbow, rib and foot injuries in recent years, and is just now beginning to ease his way into training camp. That's why defensive line coach Brian Baker has been working to convince Ratliff that taking fewer snaps will help him during games and over the course of the season. Finally, Ratliff is buying in, according to his coach.
"When he was playing 55-60 snaps a game, I've had some bigger guys gets worn down," Baker said. "That's a lot of snaps in the NFL for a defensive lineman, especially playing the scheme that we play. I think we help Jay a little bit with the depth. Fortunately, the bottom part of that room is starting to play up. Guys like (Sean) Lissemore – Liss, right now, is playing at a starter's level – so when you get that, you get some guys to where you say 'Get in there in this situation,' and now Jay has a comfort of coming out, because that used to be part of the problem before.
"He didn't want to come out, because he wasn't sure what it was going to look like when he left."
Ratliff has been working to get back on the field after being sidelined by plantar fasciitis all offseason. Thursday, he practiced in pads for the first time, performing individual drills but going light in the team portions, taking just three full-speed snaps.
On Friday, head coach Jason Garrett confirmed that Ratliff would not play in Monday's preseason opener at Oakland, but said he is "very hopeful Ratliff can return in time for the third exhibition. Garrett hinted that Ratliff is already doing more in practice than the team had planned.
"He just sneaks in the huddle and sometimes you lose track of things," Garrett said. "'Wait a second, get him out of there!' It was one of those kind of deals, but that's his nature."
Baker said he's always been of the mindset that less is more for defensive linemen. With the Panthers, he put a governor on Julius Peppers' and Tyler Brayton's snaps. Baker wouldn't elaborate on an ideal number of snaps for Ratliff each game, but promised the four-time Pro Bowler will be on the field when it counts each week.
"It depends on the game," Baker said. "It's a feel thing – their feel, my feel, the way of the game. I can assure you this: On critical downs, the best guys are going to be out there. So, critical downs, I'm pretty sure Jay's going to be on the field."