Can Bears offensive line handle Bengals pass rush?

Can Bears offensive line handle Bengals pass rush?
September 8, 2013, 12:30 am
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“Pass Protection Conscious”

These were the words of head coach Marc Trestman during his initial press conference after being introduced by the Chicago Bears. They couldn’t be more appropriate considering the Bears' season-opener is against a Bengals team that just set a franchise record with 51 sacks in 2012.

The Bengals defensive line consists of a veteran group featuring defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Atkins has quickly risen to be considered the best at his position in the NFL. The Bengals could have waited until after the season and franchise-tagged Atkins — much like the Bears have elected to handle defensive tackle Henry Melton, since his contract was scheduled to expire. Instead, both parties agreed to make Atkins the second highest paid defensive tackle in the NFL by signing him to a new five-year, $56 million deal last week. Only the Ravens' Haloti Ngata’s five-year, $61 million contract ranks higher.

The Bengals pass rush did not get worse this offseason. In fact, it got better. The Bengals signed ultra-productive blitz specialist James Harrison. Harrison was released by the Steelers in order to free up cap space. Harrison battled through knee and back injuries in 2012 and still managed to record six sacks. Now fully rehabilitated, he adds another skilled pass-rusher to the unit that already features Atkins (12.5 sacks), defensive lineman Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks) and defensive end Wallace Gilberry (6 1/2 sacks). Rookie second-round pick Margus Hunt adds yet another element to the accomplished Bengals pass-rush squad.

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The old adage goes, “be careful what you wish for." In their first game coaching from the Bears sideline, Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer might get their “Jay Cutler handling adversity" moment. Trestman has repeatedly talked to the media about the importance of Cutler handling adversity. It's quite the test for Trestman and Kromer, who are trying to build a relationship of trust with Cutler, the QB who has not seen eye to eye with any previous Bears offensive staff. Oh, by the way, Jay’s fragile ego and the Bengals' sack-happy defensive line must be handled with four new starters along the offensive line. Much of the focus will be on the right side of the line, where rookie first-round draft pick Kyle Long and rookie fifth-round pick Jordan Mills will get their first professional starts.

No sweat.

There is plenty that witty playcallers like Trestman and Kromer can do to counter the pass rush by scheming pass protections and run blocking. So many times you hear clichés like “just slide the offensive line to the best pass rusher.” That is the very reason why the Bengals signed James Harrison.

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Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told former NFL GM Bill Polian and me as much during the SiriusXM NFL Radio Training Camp tour. The idea of signing Harrison is: Who are you going to double team? If an offensive slide protects or dedicates a running back to Harrison, then Atkins, Johnson or Carlos Dunlap will see a one-on-one situation.

Sorry, I forgot to mention Dunlap. He also had six sacks last season for the Bengals.

But here’s realistically the situation heading into Sunday’s matchup: Jermon Bushrod was given $37 million to shore up Cutler’s blind side at left tackle. He is expected to earn it. When the blitz comes, the protection schemes will likely shift away from Bushrod to protect the rookie right side. He will be left alone, an option the Bears counted on last season. The Bears will dedicate their double-teams to the interior or to the right tackle position to help Mills.

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For example, on a crucial third down, protections like "62 Scan" or "Counter 62" would be called. The "6" in 62 notifies the offensive line to execute a six-man protection: five offensive linemen plus the back checking his responsibility (normally a linebacker). If the linebacker doesn't rush, the running back is free to vacate the backfield and perform his route assignment. For play-calling purposes, "2" represents the right side and "3" represents the left. Thus, "6"3 would initiate a six-man protection scheme to the left side.

-- 62 Scan: From shotgun formation, it allows running back Matt Forte to scan the “Most Dangerous Man” or block the “first colored” jersey of the opponent he feels is the most imminent threat to quarterback. Running backs are taught to scan inside out. With Bushrod already one-on-one, center Roberto Garza will read the defensive front and decide which offensive guard (Matt Slausen or Long) he will help double-team. Most likely, Garza will help out on whatever side Atkins lines up.

-- Counter 62: It is a six-man protection where the running back crosses the formation from the backside to protect from outside blitzers. This protection will specifically help Mills in third-down situations. Forte is dedicated to pick up an outside blitzer but will be coached up to “help out” much like “62 Scan.”

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I could go on and on with tight end help, etc., but the key down is third down, when Cutler will most likely be in the shotgun formation.

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is incredible. Several times, he has led a top-10 defense in the NFL. Zimmer will come up with numerous ways to stress Long and Mills. These are two examples to relieve that pressure in money-down situations.

Enjoy the game.