BOURBONNAIS – While waiting in the huddle for the play call, left guard Matt Slauson turned and cast a casual glance toward the Bears defense.
In return, Slauson said he received “the meanest look I’d ever seen.”
“[Defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff is] just staring daggers at me,” Slauson said after practice Thursday at Olivet Nazarene University.
“I’m like, ‘Rat, are we good?’ He kind of shakes it off, and he goes, ‘Oh sorry man, I was just like dazing out a little bit.’
“I’m like, ‘Really, that’s your daze out look. You’re going to kill me and eat my soul.’ Rat is like, ‘Sorry man.’
“He’s just always got that look about him, and it just carries over. A lot of guys almost fear him a little bit because he just looks mean as hell.”
The Bears definitely need that meanness after the two worst defensive seasons in team history. Coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense won’t work without it at nose guard.
Fangio calls the three-man front “the heart and soul” of his defense, and if you ask Bears players, that’s exactly what Ratliff is.
“Jeremiah Ratliff is the final boss you got to face in the video game,” guard Kyle Long said. “You play it all summer and then you got to beat Jeremiah Ratliff.”
A healthy Ratliff, 33, will mean so much to the Bears’ success. At this point, they don’t have another player quite like him for Fangio’s three-man front.
Ratliff last played a full season in 2011, the last year he was named to the Pro Bowl. He sat out five games because of a concussion and knee injury last season. Ratliff also missed considerable time with groin and sports hernia injuries before playing in five games for the Bears in 2013.
“I would have say that I feel pretty good overall coming into this season,” Ratliff said. “I’m definitely excited about that. It does take a lot of worry off you.”
It’s evident on the field.
“He’s still got it,” defensive end Ego Ferguson said. “He’s probably got like five years [left] on him. It just depends on what he wants to do.”
Ratliff, though, can’t escape his reality. Not at his age. He said he shares the same year-by-year, day-by-day focus that veteran Jared Allen, who also is 33, often talks about.
“We’re old enough to know that you can’t predict the future,” Ratliff said. “You can dream and plan all you want, and it never really goes that way. You just go out and do what you’re supposed to do.”
But the competitive fire in his still burns, Ratliff said. The arrivals of coach John Fox and Fangio have been extra kindling. The work and development of the young defensive linemen are fuel.
Ratliff will stare you in the eyes and tell you that good things are ahead.
“It is better,” Ratliff said. “These guys [the coaching staff] obviously know exactly what they’re doing. They have a good plan, a great schedule.
“The rest is up to us.”
Off the field, Ratliff has a different persona. He’s a teacher, taking Ferguson, Will Sutton, Cornelius Washington, Eddie Goldman and other linemen under his wings.
Bears players describe Ratliff as a friendly, approachable family man with whom you can talk to about anything.
“He can almost relate to any situation you’ve been in,” Ferguson said.
“He’ll talk to you if he thinks you need a talking to,” Washington said.
“He sets the bar,” Goldman added. “He sets the example. And we just follow.”
The offense has noticed.
“Ego is getting a lot better out here,” Slauson said. “[Ratliff] said, ‘Me and Ego watch you. We dissect how to beat you everyday, and I’ve been giving him tricks.’
“I go, ‘Well, I can tell. Thanks, jerk.’ ”
Veteran end Jarvis Jenkins said Ratliff treats his teammate differently than other Pro Bowl players he played with. Washington said he’s always amazed at how low Ratliff stays in action.
But it’s that bad-ass persona that Slauson and Long deal with on a daily basis that really resonates with everyone. It’s what the Bears need to stay on the field.
“He can pump anybody up,” Ferguson said. “He has a warrior mentality; it’s a military mindset. And he always wants people to ride with him.”
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