Wade Philips runs a single-gap 3-4. It emphasizes disruption. Seattle ran out Steve Vallos at center last season against the Cowboys. Dallas nose tackle Jay Ratliff didn't so much disrupt as unfold a lawn chair in Seattle's backfield. Vallos became reeling, beat down and beaten evidence that, in football, it is often your weakest link that matters most.
Chris Spencer will fly to Jerry Jones floating castle. The first rounder, ever maligned, gives Seattle counterpunch at center. Spencer can match against Ratliff and win on most snaps.
As I've detailed before, the series of individual matchups that must be won for an effective stretch run starts at center. Spencer must be able hold center integrity or the Cowboys inside linebackers will penetrate into the backfield and lengthen, slow or tackle Seattle's rusher. In Ratliff's case, losing that initial matchup could mean losing the play to Ratliff himself. He has two sacks and five run tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Spencer must also contain Ratliff on pass plays. Ratliff has a furious first step. He is an aggressive, attacking nose tackle that is assigned a gap and gets into it and through it in a hurry. Ratliff was able to overwhelm Vallos with a beastly bull rush, but also swim him and capitalize on his mistakes. As often as Vallos was outright beat, he would beat himself, misreading the defense and allowing gaping pass rush lanes after blocking the wrong man.
For Spencer to succeed, he must get off the snap and pop Ratliff back. Spencer has a power advantage on Ratliff. The Dallas nose is something of a three tech. Unlike most nose tackles, Ratliff is not a space eater or blocker influencer. He is a playmaker. The former Auburn end took a long path to nose tackle, is long limbed and relatively thin, and does not belong to the lineage of Jamal Williams and Chris Hovan.
Spencer can overpower Ratliff if he is hitting him squarely off the snap. Dallas will contest that by moving Ratliff off center and over the left and right "A" gaps. Spencer must then be able to angle block Ratliff and not allow Ratliff to isolate a shoulder and flank him.
On run plays, Seattle will attempt to move out Ratliff and then stream to the second level. Spencer must be coordinated with guards Max Unger and Rob Sims, and know instinctively how to strike Ratliff, when to pull and who should pull.
On pass plays, Seattle will attempt to squeeze Ratliff. Philips loves to rush five. He walks his outside linebackers off-tackle and edge rushes and stunts to create pressure and cause confusion. The five man rush can foil double teams, forcing each offensive lineman to single match against a defender. That means winning at any matchup - DeMarcus Ware off the corner, Marcus Spears from the front side, Ratliff up the middle - can force the pass or get the sack. Seattle has countered such attacks with max-protect and screens. It can't do that on every snap.
One method to stopping a gapping defense is to remove defenders from their gap and disorganize the rush. When I say Spencer must squeeze Ratliff, I mean Spencer must knock him back and ideally push him into the Cowboys ends or even linebackers. That's a major coup for an offensive line. It bunches defenders and allows the offense to overwhelm them. It takes them out of their gaps and slows and disorganizes the rush. When Ratliff is aside Spencer, Spencer must team with the corresponding guard to attack Ratliff off the snap and then reset into their respective zones and hope that initial pop has left Ratliff staggered, off his gap or into his teammate.
It won't be easy, but Sunday is the snaps Spencer was drafted to play. He faces an athlete with great quickness and pass-rush technique, quickness and pass-rush technique few nose tackles can match. But Spencer is supposed to be a center with quickness, agility and power few centers can match. His long, sputtering, but sometimes exciting development attempts a major milestone in Dallas.