Ratliff was convicted in April and the NFL today levied his three-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He’s allowed to practice with the team the next two weeks and play in the final two preseason contests, but cannot participate in team activities once the suspension goes into effect.
Ratliff is a four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle who is a big part of new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s 3-4 system. He’s an experienced leader who will line up at both nose tackle and 5-technique. He brings positional versatility, toughness and aggressiveness to Chicago’s defensive line.
Last season, Ratliff finished second on the team with 6.5 sacks, the second highest total of his 10-year career. He also had 19 QB hurries and 19 run “stops”, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s by far the best interior pass rusher on the team, one who is also stout against the run.
Ratliff is the emotional leader of the defense who, even at age 33, still plays at a Pro Bowl level. He showed the fire of a player 10 years younger during training camp and was expected to lead the charge for Chicago’s new front seven.
That won’t happen until Week 4 and by that point, the Bears may already be out of playoff contention.
“It’s tough to sit out any game for any reason,” Ratliff said. “Of course, a situation like this doesn’t make it any easier. I’m going to do what I have to do and I’ll come back Week 4 and be ready to play.”
Chicago’s first three contests this year are against the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. Those three playoff teams combined to go 35-13 last year, with the Seahawks and Packers squaring off in the NFC Championship game.
Even with Ratliff on the field, there was a good chance the Bears would have started 0-3. With him on the sidelines, it’s going to be even tougher to pick up a win before Oakland. Since the NFL expanded its playoff format to 12 teams in 1990, only three teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3.
Realistically, the Bears could be out of the playoff race by the time Ratliff returns. That’s the heavy-handed reality of this suspension. When you suspend the club’s best defensive lineman, in a defense undergoing a major transition and a schedule front-loaded like an aging veteran’s final contract, you create the perfect storm.
“It’s something we’ve known about for a while,” head coach John Fox said. “It happened a couple years ago. It’s not a new incident. It’s not breaking news. So it was just a matter of time and just like anyone else, it’ll be next man up. We’ll always be looking to improve the roster but for the short term I think we’ll do it from within.”
At nose tackle, the Bears will turn to second-round rookie Eddie Goldman. He’s shown flashes of potential as a two-gap run stuffer but he’s been inconsistent the first two preseason games, something likely to continue during the regular season.
Pass rush is where Ratliff’s suspension will hurt the Bears most. He was one of the club’s primary interior pass rushers in sub packages, in which Fangio deploys two 3-technique defensive tackles. If those guys can collapse the pocket up the gut, it makes life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
With Ratliff out, Will Sutton will be expected to pick up the slack on passing downs. Sutton has played well this off-season and picked up a sack against the Colts on Sunday. He packed on some weight this off-season, which appears to have given him added strength without sapping him of quickness.
“I don’t know whose opportunity it’s going to be; it’s going to be somebody’s, I can say that,” said Fox. “When a door closes for somebody it opens for somebody else. A lot of players are discovered through those opportunities.”
Schematically, expect Fangio to dial up more blitzes with Ratliff on the shelf. Without his ability to beat interior blockers one-on-one, the Bears must find another way to pressure quarterbacks, and blitzing may end up the only option.
The Bears are confident in their Plan B and, as Fox said, this gives other guys opportunity to take valuable first-team reps. But at the end of the day, no one on this team is going to replace Ratliff’s on-field presence and production.
The Bears can only hope the season hasn’t already spiraled out of control by the time their defensive leader returns to the field.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.