The Chicago Bears have been dealing with questions about their depth on defense all offseason long, and they will be put to a stern early test this season as defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff has been suspended for the first three games of the campaign.
Ratliff is a veteran leader among a group of players that is primarily young, and his absence will hurt the Bears. The line has several players who are entering their rookie (Eddie Goldman) and second years (Will Sutton, Ego Ferguson) in the league, and losing an anchor like Ratliff is going to hurt the team immensely.
The question for the Bears moving forward is this: Who will step up in Ratliff’s absence, and how will it affect Vic Fangio’s desire to move the team into a primarily 3-4 defensive front?
To answer the first part of the question, a look at the roster doesn’t provide a lot of optimism. Goldman is likely going to get the bulk of the snaps at nose tackle while Ratliff is out, but he has shown an inability to stay on the field during training camp workouts and hasn’t looked all that great in preseason games either.
The Bears could also opt to put a player like Will Sutton or Ego Ferguson at the position, but doing the former would lead to questions over whether Sutton can effectively stop the run at the position and the latter would lead to questions about which player should fill in at defensive end, where Ferguson has looked really solid this preseason.
The more likely scenario for the Bears is to run more 4-3 plays than they had originally anticipated running. Sutton and Goldman would likely strengthen one another up the middle in that type of formation, and one would think that Ferguson and Jarvis Jenkins would be just fine on the ends in that scheme. Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston could also potentially slide back into the mix at end if the Bears end up going that route.
Whatever the case may be, losing Ratliff hurts, but losing him against three of the better offenses in the league hurts even worse. The Bears are already dealing with integrating players into new positions and a new scheme, and losing a veteran presence that was going to help anchor everything into place makes things even tougher.