Jeremiah Ratliff guesses he last played defensive end during training camp in 2005, his first year with the Cowboys. Before then, it was for a two-year stint at Auburn, a school where he had first enrolled as a tight end. He admits, even now, he’s played more tight end than defensive end in his life.
His attitude about playing end for the Bears, though, is more rooted in the years he has left than those behind him.
“Eleven years, it’s been a long time,” Ratliff, who was named to four Pro Bowls as a 3-4 nose tackle, said Wednesday at Halas Hall. “Your career’s coming to a close, so just enjoy it. If I’m at end, I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to enjoy my time.
“I want to win. Wherever my team needs me, I’m going to be there. I’m going to make it work. Point-blank, end of discussion.”
The Bears need him to.
They already think highly of Ratliff. Coach John Fox praised the 33-year-old upon his arrival, citing Ratliff and cornerback Kyle Fuller as the two cornerstones upon which he could try to resurrect the Bears’ defense.
When the Bears drafted Florida State nose tackle Eddie Goldman in the second round, though, general manager Ryan Pace talked about moving Ratliff around the defensive line.
When the team cut end Ray McDonald after his arrest Monday, Ratliff’s ability to play end became more a necessity than a luxury.
The Bears figure to move Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton and Brandon Dunn — all second-year players who played tackle last season — around the line, while new acquisition Jarvis Jenkins is the team’s only lineman to start a game as a 3-4 end. He started 33 games the last three years with the Redskins.
“I come in here with an open mind, ready to be adaptable,” said Ratliff, entering the last season of a two-year, $4 million deal. “Wherever they need me, I’m just going to put my best foot forward and learn it. That’s all.”
Ferguson slimmed down in the offseason specifically so he could play both end and tackle.
“An athlete,” Ferguson said. “I’m going to be labeled as an athlete this year.”
The Bears’ plan won’t change much without McDonald, said Ferguson, who swore Vic Fangio’s new 3-4 system wasn’t so much different than Mel Tucker’s 4-3.
“Football’s football—everyone puts Xs and Os in there,” he said. “It’s the same thing just three down linemen or four down linemen, whichever you like better.”
The 3-4 terminology was still buried in the back of Ratliff’s brain, dating to his days in Dallas, though he said repetition is be the fastest way to learn the scheme.
He’s shared some of his knowledge with his younger teammates, but to a point.
“When there’s something they can do a little bit better, I’ll extend a hand,” he said. “But pretty much I try to stay out of their way and learn their playing styles. If there’s something I can help them out on to get them to Point B faster, I’ll do that.”
That includes the 6-4, 336-pound Goldman, the nose tackle Ratliff called a “monster.”
“He’ll probably only get stronger and get a little bit bigger, not in a bad way, especially with this staff,” he said. “I think he’s going to play in this league a long time.”
Ratliff knows he won’t for much longer. So, he said, he vowed to help the rookie.
”That’s part of being a veteran,” he said. “When you do leave, you want to leave the organization in the best hands possible. That’s what was done for me.
“Eddie, those young guys they brought in, they got a lot of talent. They’re very, very strong guys, and any way I can help them, I’m going to do that. Period.”