The long nightmare for the Bears defense began with the season-ending knee injury to tackle Henry Melton in Week 3, picked up steam with tackle Stephen Paea’s toe injury in week four and accelerated with Nate Collins’ torn ACL in week five. Throw in middle linebacker D.J. Williams’ season-ending chest injury in week six and Lance Briggs’ fractured shoulder in Week 7 and the surprise would be if the Bears were better than 32nd against the run, not that they are 32nd.
But facing what is nothing less than an elimination game – after Detroit beat Green Bay on Thanksgiving, if the Bears somehow lose to the Minnesota Vikings, they will be three games behind the Lions (two plus tiebreaker) with four to play. Season over.
Which is where the defensive line comes in. Particularly defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, expected to make his Bears debut on Sunday. Ratliff was signed by general manager Phil Emery for precisely this moment, not to play against his old teammates, the Dallas Cowboys next week. Now. Against this running back.
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When the Vikings defeated the Bears 21-14 last December, what is remembered is Adrian Peterson’s 104 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter and 125 yards for the half. Forgotten was that the Vikings needed a TD interception return and a second pick of Jay Cutler to secure the win, in part because the Bears allowed Peterson just 29 yards in the second half.
“With a back like him, everyone is at the point of attack on every play, front side and back side,” said defensive coordinator. “He stresses everyone on your front, and in your secondary in terms of leverage, gaps and things like that because he can hit it anywhere.”
All of which is purely statistics (the Vikings did win, after all), but the overarching point is that the Bears have a 6-5 record over the Vikings for Peterson’s career, 6-3 since his rookie season, and they have both controlled him with their defensive lines and won in spite of his production; the Bears have beaten the Vikings in games with Peterson rushing for 100, 108 and 121 yards.
That only happens, however, when the Bears have some degree of effectiveness on the defensive line, the group hardest hit with injuries this season and the one, when it catches a cold, the rest of the defense reaches for a tissue.
What to look for: The impact of Jeremiah Ratliff. The run defense in particular was solid enough when Paea was healthy, ranking eighth against the run through three games before his toe injury. But he and replacements have done little, adding to the need for immediate impact from Ratliff with the season on the line.
Ratliff has not played a game in more than a year but the assumption must be that he is going full speed enough in practice to determine that he can play effectively in live action and still have his injured lower abdomen area hold up.
The Bears got virtually nothing from fill-in’s Tracy Robertson (cut) and Christian Topou (cut in preseason, re-signed, has contributed one QB hurry in 54 snaps over four games). Ratliff is a four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle. The Bears are not expecting that but they are looking for a veteran presence at a position that has had virtually none for too many games.
“He’s brought something to our locker room already,” said coach Marc Trestman. “And on the practice field, our offensive linemen have felt him during the week, his presence on the field. That’s a good sign. And we’ll see where it goes. We’re not going to make any proclamations at this point in time. But demeanor-wise, his attitude, the way he’s fit into our locker room and the way he practiced this week, he was a guy out there that everybody realized was out there practicing. That’s a good thing. And we’ll see where it takes us on Sunday.”