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Bears unprepared for Ratliff’s suspension

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The Chicago Bears’ opening day defensive line will look a lot different than the one general manager Ryan Pace envisioned.

After a failed attempt to resurrect defensive end Ray McDonald’s career, the Bears still had at least two veteran linemen with experience in a 3-4 alignment — Jarvis Jenkins and Jeremiah Ratliff.

Now, after Ratliff’s three-game suspension (vs. Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle) resulting from a 2013 league substance abuse policy violation, the rebuilt defense is in trouble.

“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.”

So, if the Bears were aware Ratliff might miss the first three games, why didn’t they gear up a Plan B? That might entail, for example, giving first-team reps to rookie nose tackle Eddie Goldman. The second-round pick from Florida State played behind Ratliff throughout camp and the first two preseason games.

“We pretty much knew the whole shootin’ match,” was Fox’s reply when asked how much the team knew.

Ratliff won’t be available to practice until the week of the Oct. 4 game with Oakland. He can practice until the end of preseason.

In Goldman, the defensive front will have a physical presence who has displayed his inexperience throughout the preseason.

“He’s coming along nicely,” Ratliff said about Goldman. “The positive thing is younger guys get a lot more experience, a lot more reps. They have an opportunity to really get better and establish themselves. Part of my job is helping them doing that, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

Fox found specific areas where Goldman has improved.

“He’s stout, he’s learning to transition faster — recognizing the run and the pass … the difference,” Fox said. “He’s a big body that pushes the pocket. I like where he’s headed.”

The move to Goldman seems a natural. Ego Ferguson is a possibility at the nose, as well, although he’s spent most of training camp playing end in the 3-4 or at a tackle spot when the Bears line up in a four-man line in pass-rush situations.

“I don’t know whose opportunity it’s going to be; it’s going to be somebody’s,” Fox said. “I can say that. When a door closes for somebody, it opens for somebody else. A lot of players are discovered through those opportunities. I can’t predict the future and I don’t want to try.”

A week and a half earlier, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had labeled Ratliff the team’s best defensive lineman.

“The other guys are fighting for that second, third, fourth, fifth and potentially sixth spot,” he said. “There’s a good fight going on right now.”

Ferguson, however, lost weight coming into the season so he could take over an end spot rather than play nose. He made a special point of going to three-a-days in Arizona to lose the weight.

“I think he’s had a maturity from Year 1 to Year 2, we’ll see if he can carry it over into the games,” Fangio said.

With three games against NFC contenders to start the season, someone has to show maturity and ability to step into Ratliff’s role in a hurry to prevent the defense from looking like the one that ended last season.

–Losing wide receiver Marquess Wilson to a hamstring injury against Indianapolis couldn’t have come at a worse time considering Alshon Jeffery (calf strain) still was not cleared to return to action as of Monday (Aug. 24).

Quarterback Jay Cutler could go into the dress rehearsal third preseason game against Cincinnati throwing to Eddie Royal, Cameron Meredith and Josh Bellamy in the receiver corps.

“It comes with the territory,” Fox said. “We prefer him (Jeffery) out there and he’s doing everything he can to get out there.”

After the Packers lost Jordy Nelson for the year with a torn ACL, the Bears are merely counting their blessings that neither of the injuries is serious and even rookie Kevin White, who had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his shin, is not officially out for the year.

“I think it’s a challenge,” Fox said. “We’re not the lone rangers. You read around the league, people get injured. It’s part of football, so you deal with it.”

–Right tackle remains up for grabs, although the move of second-year tackle Charles Leno Jr. into the first-team spot suggests the Bears are thinking they’ve seen enough of Jordan Mills. Leno was promoted just before the game with the Colts and didn’t exactly shine.

Mills gave up a sack in the first preseason game with Miami, but it was offset by a penalty. He jumped offside the first play of the game, a problem he has had in the past.

However, Leno had an illegal use of hands penalty and got a running play stuffed with a missed block.

“Being consistent is probably the biggest thing I want to do,” Leno said.

The other option not being mentioned by coaches yet is sliding Pro-Bowl right guard Kyle Long to right tackle, as they did during minicamp due to injuries at the position.

At Monday’s (Aug. 24) practice, Leno continued in the first-team spot, although Mills did get a few plays there.

If the Bears went to Long, they would likely use journeyman lineman Vlad Ducasse at right guard.

Notes: Guard Lucas Nix signed to a one-year deal and the team waived/injured tackle-guard Jason Weaver. … Safety Ryan Mundy (hip) is still not practicing.


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