How will Bears O-line shake out against Falcons?

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How will Bears O-line shake out against Falcons?

Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011Posted: 10:30 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
Its really kind of difficult to tell whether Jay Cutler is pleased with or has serious reservations about his offensive line going into a game that matters.

Were going to have a few bumps in the road, Im sure this year, with those guys, probably the first game, Cutler said. Just getting them settled down and comfortable. But I have all the faith in the world in them. Theyre a very talented group. Got some older guys and some younger guys. Theyre going to have to learn as they go.

But theyre all weve got, so we got to go with them.

Not a complete hug, but

In any case, you do have to love the simplicity of a rookie.

Gabe Carimi was the Bears No. 1 move since the end of last season to address the offensive line. The only move, really, other than signing backup center Chris Spencer.

Now Carimi is just a matter of hours away from starting to truly show whether the Bears money and first-round draft choice was well spent. Hell face Atlanta Falcons defensive ends John Abraham and Ray Edwards, who accounted for 21 sacks in 2010, Abrahams 13 with the Falcons and Edwards 8 with the Minnesota Vikings on the other end from Jared Allen.

As the Bears do with Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers, the Falcons flip-flop their ends. Carimi has a simple approach to his first NFL game, not obsessing with the details.

Im going to be cool and collected, Carimi said. Thats my plan.

Line coach Mike Tice would like the same mindset for his whole unit. The offensive line has been perhaps the most scrutinized area of the Bears since the middle of the 2010 season. It was during the draft, training camp and it still is.

The Atlanta offense has firepower, starting with quarterback Matt Ryan and including running back Michael Turner and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. But the Falcons, while ranking just 27th in passing yards allowed and rushing average, ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed.

They play hard, play fast, and theyre really disciplined, said Chris Williams, at left guard now but at right tackle in 2009 when the Bears faced the Falcons.

Center Roberto Garza has more years of experience (10) than the other four offensive line starters combined (6). But the same five were intact for the opening snap of every preseason game except for Garza being given the night off against Cleveland.

Sick bay

The Bears had the good fortune last season to face a number of opponents who were without a key player or two. The Atlanta Falcons are without starting center Todd McClure Sunday, a situation that the Bears need to exploit to get disruption of the Atlanta run game and Matt Ryans pass protection.

Week 2 opponent New Orleans will be without No. 1 wide receiver Marques Colston after he suffered a broken collarbone expected to sideline him for at least four weeks.

But the Falcons will have the advantage of facing a Bears team without Marion Barber, No. 2 on the depth chart, but projected to be a crucial part of the Bears running game and red-zone offense.

Moneyball

Matt Fortes ears unquestionably perked up Saturday. The Minnesota Vikings agreed with running back Adrian Peterson on a seven-year contract worth potentially worth 100 million. More important, the deal reportedly includes 36 million guaranteed, according to ESPNs Adam Schefter.

Peterson, like Forte, was heading into the final year of his rookie contract. Forte has been offered a contract with more than 11 million guaranteed but that was not deemed adequate by the Forte camp. Now, after the deals for Peterson and Tennessees Chris Johnson (56 million, 30 million guaranteed), the market for Forte would appear to have taken a significant tick up.

Just mentioning

The Green Bay Packers are the gimme pick to do great things again in 2011. But the NFC has had 10 different champions in the last 10 years. As Im noted before, only four of the last 10 Super Bowl champions even won their division the following season

Fun to see this week that Rex Grossman was being named as the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins. The last time the Atlanta Falcons played in Soldier Field (2005) marked the return of Grossman, whod missed the first 13 games of the season with an injury.

He replaced Kyle Orton at halftime, a move that a former Bear told CSNChicago.com the players were not behind, believing that Orton had gotten them to a good place even as a rookie, and some felt that the Bears wouldve done better than lose in the first round of the playoffs with Orton instead of Grossman.

Which also is a reminder that Lovie Smith and the Bears have had four winning seasons in the past six and done it with three different starting quarterbacks (Grossman, Orton, Jay Cutler).

And finally

The concern that the Bears cannot score with the apparent class of the NFC the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and, of more immediate relevance, the Falcons isnt a good enough reason to pick against a team that has traditionally opened its seasons well under Lovie Smith.

Too much attention is being paid to comparing the Bears offense to Atlantas, which is never completely relevant (Jay Cutler vs. Aaron Rodgers -- ? theyre never on the field at the same time). What is relevant to me is that running back Michael Turner, the No. 3 rusher in the NFC, was held under 50 rushing yards four times and the Falcons lost three of those games.

That isnt a guarantee of success, but it shows that one part of that offense can be shut down, and your chances of winning then rise exponentially.

The NFL has structured its game to support the pass; ironically, if the Bears approach a game with a pass-first mindset against a team with an offense like Atlantas, however, they will lose.

But more than one Bear, including quarterback Jay Cutler, has alluded to the understanding that balance worked for the Bears last year and is expected to again. The Lovie Smith Bears are good learners.

And so

BEARS 21 ATLANTA 20

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Are Bears better than Texans, Broncos, Dolphins and others? Pro Football Focus says yes

Pro Football Focus has more than its share of both supporters and detractors of how it goes about grading NFL players. They break down every snap for every player, and while there are general agreements on what's seen by naked, untrained eyes who don't put the time and investment into its system that PFF does, there are other evaluations that seem to come out of the blue. While there's occasional guesswork on a player's particular assignment on a given play within its scheme, those of us who've watched and studied nuances of the game, or those who've played it, can usually identify how many jobs were done correctly.

Tuesday, PFF released its rankings of all 32 NFL rosters but in essence focused on the quality of each team's starting lineup, listing the Bears — are you sitting down? — 18th in the league. That's ahead of the likes of the Ravens, Saints, Texans, Dolphins, a Jaguars franchise that's had tons of high draft picks in recent years, as well as the Broncos and Lions (whom they rank 28th). The top five are the Falcons, Patriots, Titans, Packers and Steelers (the Bears play three of those teams in September alone). Among other Bears opponents, they rank the Panthers 10th, Vikings 12th, Buccaneers 13th and Eagles 15th.

[BEARS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Their evaluation is based on each player's final score from last season, "elite" and "good" being the top two levels, followed by "average" and "below average" to "poor." The only Bear earning elite status was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Another nine Bears finished with good grades: Jordan Howard, Zach Miller, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Danny Trevathan, Adrian Amos and Quintin Demps (who earned his grade in Houston).

Those earning average grades were Cam Meredith, Kendall Wright, Kyle Long, Charles Leno, Jr., Pernell McPhee and Prince Amukamara. Below average: Mike Glennon (in mop-up duty in Tampa Bay), Kevin White, Bobby Massie, Leonard Floyd and Jaye Howard. The only Bear earning a poor grade among projected starters was tight end Dion Sims (with Miami). The other potential flaw is that PFF lists Kyle Fuller (no grade) and Bryce Callahan (average) as starters when Marcus Cooper and Cre'Von LeBlanc likely have the inside track to start at cornerback and nickel back, respectively.

How did the Bears get to 18th, above three playoff teams and another that won the Super Bowl two years ago? Well, all of those other teams have more elite players at certain positions, but it's offset by a number of spots occupied by more players with poor or below average grades. The Broncos (25th) for instance, had four elite players, just another four falling under the good grade, but five players listed as poor.

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

Jordan Howard wants to lead Bears... and lead the league

So Jordan Howard finished second in the NFL in rushing in his rookie season, despite just a dozen carries in the first three games. The fifth-round pick joined the man who beat him out for the rushing title, Ezekiel Elliott, as one of just five rookies in history to average five or more yards per carry on over 250 carries. And he set the Bears' rookie rushing record with his 1,313 yards while becoming just the fourth in franchise history to rush for that many yards in a season.

Sounds pretty hard to top, like we might be set up for the dreaded sophomore slump.

But...

"Things are a lot different this year because I know what to expect," Howard said during the team's minicamp two weeks ago. "I know all the plays and things like that. I’m not out there thinking, so I can just play free and fast.

"I definitely feel like a veteran 'cause I know what to expect and can help the young guys on the plays that they're not understanding. I’m just more comfortable and want to be a leader."

One of the other things we learned about Howard last year is he's low-key, a man of few words. So the Indiana product by way of UAB will make his points verbally when needed, but his actions will speak louder.

"He was a rookie a year ago and didn't even go in trying to be a leader, telling a five-year guy what was up," said head coach John Fox. "I think with time, and obviously with production like he had, I think it's a role he can fall in to. We're in a performance-based business and even in that locker room, what they do on Sundays gives them some credibility."

One of the concerns about Howard coming out of college was durability, but he answered the bell once he became the starter in week four against Detroit. And he probably wasn't used nearly as much as he should have. The good news about that is he was subject to less wear and tear, averaging just 18 carries per game from that Lions game on.

But besides taking more of a leadership role, Howard wanted to work on his speed without sacrificing the strong base that, paired with keen vision and work by the offensive line, allowed him to hit holes quickly and charge toward the second level of opposing defenses.

"Just improving on the little things – my conditioning, my weight, catching passes. And looking for ways to finish runs better," says Howard. "I feel like I’m in much better shape than I was at this time last year, a little more toned-up."

"It's just training," said Fox. "When you get to that it's more like track speed than football speed and I think he proved pretty worthy of that a year ago as a rookie. Y'know we all can improve on things, and that's the expectation. He's trained hard.

"This time of year last year he wasn’t even practicing," Fox remembered. "I like where we are, we’ve brought in more competition, and he’s better for it. He’s kind of gotten used to an NFL season, he’s come back ready to roll, but he still has work to do before we get to training camp."  

Oh, and the 22-year-old has a couple of other goals he didn't mind sharing, besides being a leader and getting a little faster.

"First off, make the playoffs. Be the leading rusher, and just help the team in any way I can and stay consistent."