Moon: Bears' O-line improved, can it last?

327235.jpg

Moon: Bears' O-line improved, can it last?

Friday, Jan. 14, 2011
Posted: 12:48 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

The offensive line that will face off against the Seattle Seahawks in a few days will be far different from the one that went against Seattle back in October. Or at least the Bears certainly hope it is.

How much better it is could well determine whether the Bears playoff run lasts one game or continues deeper into the second season. The offensive line is better than it was in October. But the bigger issue now is whether it is good enough.

The Bears clearly believe that the offensive line has indeed been at the center of the turnaround that saw them win seven of eight before the slip-up in Green Bay.

For the most part, you cant say enough about what our O-line has done, said offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. Those five guys have been together and settled in, and its not a coincidence that our run game has been going the way it has, and our third downs. It all starts with those guys, and theyve done a great job of coming together.
A closer look

In the 23-20 loss to Seattle on Oct. 17, quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked six times. He was hit officially an additional 10 times. The result was perhaps the worst single day of the season for the Bears offensive line, on the scale of the 10-sack game less than two weeks earlier against the New York Giants.

What elevated (or lowered) the Seattle game in the dubious rankings was the fact that Seattle was nowhere near the pass-rush threat that the early season Giants were and also that the Bears had clearly not fixed their myriad problems.

The personnel was changing. Center Olin Kreutz was in his customary spot when the Seahawks arrived, but Williams was making his first start at left guard, rookie Webb was making his second at right tackle, and Frank Omiyale was making his fourth at left tackle after spending all offseason at right. Edwin Williams was making his second and next-to-last start at right guard before Garza returned from knee surgery after the off week.

Seattle had their free week prior to the Bears game, time to scheme, and they did. Of the Seahawks 6 sacks, 4.5 of them were by defensive backs, i.e. blitzes.

Dubious progress?

But the extent of real progress is still unclear. The New York game dropped the Bears to 32nd in sacks per pass attempt and the Seattle game, along with a 6-sack game against Green Bay and three 4-sack games, kept them securely there through the final 10 games of the season.

Still, if you look at the last 10 weeks, for the most part, we have protected better, said tight end Greg Olsen, who is involved in the Martz blocking schemes. Yes, weve given up sacks, but its not as clear as people make it out to be.

READ: Dilfer lays into Cutler

The Bears averaged 4.1 yards per carry or more in three of their first six games with the still-shuffling line. They hit that mark just four of nine times after the off week when the final personnel decisions were made.

But the Bears have had just one game with fewer than 100 rushing yards and Matt Fortes rushing average has risen steadily from below 4 yards per carry at the break (including 1.4 per rush vs. Seattle) to a career-best 4.5 per carry for the full season.

Having the same group intact since the break has been the key.

Its important mostly for them because they kind of get used to what each others going to do, Forte said. They jell together and they have to communicate with each other on what they see and how theyre going to block certain plays. Theyve got to communicate and if the same five are there together, theyre going to communicate better.
Difficult learning
Ironically, the complexities of the Martz offense, with its extensive use of different and shifting formations, was causing defensive coordinators to devise creative responses. That required even more adaptation by the line, on the fly.

Our offense gets a lot of different looks because of the formations we give and motions, and no one really replicates that, Kreutz said. You cant really see that on film until we play guys.

Once we learned more what the coaches wanted out of us, that was the turning point. The off week helped a lot. We kind of figured out who we were and who we wanted to be. We just learned how to execute the plays called better.

With the second season on the line, will the line have learned enough better?

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.

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

Bears training camp preview: Three burning questions for the offensive line

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Friday's unit: the offensive line. 

1. Will Kyle Long and Josh Sitton flip spots, and will it be effective?

One of the more intriguing storylines to come out of the Bears’ offseason program was the possibility of a Kyle Long-Josh Sitton guard swap, with Long moving from right to left and Sitton to left to right. The prevailing wisdom is that Long’s athleticism would be better suited for the pulls needed at left guard, while Sitton has made Pro Bowls at both positions. But is it prudent for the Bears to make this switch with Long still recovering from November ankle surgery and some nasty complications that came after it? He’s shown he’s skilled enough to already make one position switch on the offensive line (from right tackle to right guard), so there’s no reason to doubt he couldn’t handle another so long as he’s healthy. We’ll see where he is next week. 

“You want flexibility,” coach John Fox said. “You don’t want as much flexibility as we had to use a year ago because we had to play so many guys due to injury. But we’re messing around with (Sitton) and Kyle both playing opposite sides, whether one’s on the left, one’s on the right. We’ll get those looks in camp, we got plenty of time.”

2. Can Charles Leno Jr. capitalize on a contract year?

Leno has been a pleasant surprise given the low expectations usually set for seventh-round picks. He started every game in 2016, checking off an important box for John Fox — reliability. Whether Leno can be more than a reliable player at left tackle, though, remains to be seen (if the Bears thought he were, wouldn’t they have signed him to an extension by now?). He has one more training camp and 16 games to prove he’s worthy of a deal to be the Bears (or someone else’s) left tackle of the future. Otherwise, the Bears may look to a 2018 draft class rich in tackles led by Texas’ Connor Williams and Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. 

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself,” Leno said. 

3. Will Hroniss Grasu survive the roster crunch?

A year ago, Grasu was coming off a promising rookie season and was in line to be the Bears’ starting center. But the Oregon product tore his ACL in August, and Cody Whitehair thrived after a last-minute move from guard to center. If the Bears keep eight offensive lineman this year, Grasu could be squeezed out: Leno, Long, Whitehair, Sitton and Bobby Massie are the likely starters, with Eric Kush and Tom Compton filling reserve roles. That leaves one spot, either for fifth-round guard Jordan Morgan or Grasu. The Bears could try to stash Morgan, who played his college ball at Division-II Kutztown, on the practice squad and keep Grasu. But Grasu doesn’t have flexibility to play another position besides center, which could hurt his case. 

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

With training camp starting next week, CSN Chicago’s Chris Boden and JJ Stankevitz are looking at three burning questions for each of the Bears’ position groups heading into Bourbonnais. Thursday's unit: the tight ends.

1. Will Zach Miller make the 53-man roster?

Miller didn’t play a single down from 2012-14, and has missed seven games in two seasons with the Bears, but he’s been productive when on the field: 110 targets, 81 receptions, 925 yards and nine touchdowns. But the Bears signed Dion Sims to an $18 million contract and then drafted Adam Shaheen in the second round of the draft, moves that seemingly put Miller in a precarious position heading into Bourbonnais. Not helping Miller’s case is the Lisfranc fracture he suffered last November, which kept him sidelined through OTAs and veteran minicamp in May and June. He’d be a valuable player for the Bears to keep around, but at the same time, training camp could be a perfect storm for Miller to be among the cuts.

“They’re going to cutting it close for training camp,” coach John Fox said of Miller (and Danny Trevathan) in June. “But right now they’re right on target and that’s kind of what we expected all offseason.”

2. What can we expect from Adam Shaheen?

Shaheen was among the bright spots during May and June, hardly looking like someone who played his college ball at Division II Ashland while going against NFL defenders. But those were just shorts-and-helmets practices without any contact, so it’d be premature to project anything about Shaheen off of them. The real test for Shaheen will be when he puts the pads on in Bourbonnais and gets his first experience with the physicality of the NFL after a few years of being head and shoulders — literally — above his competition in college. It’s unlikely Shaheen will live up to his “Baby Gronk” hype in Year 1, but if he handles training camp well, he could be a valuable red zone asset for Mike Glennon as a rookie. 

“You don’t know until you put the pads on,” Shaheen said. “That’s what I’m excited for.”

3. How productive can this unit be?

Between Sims — who had a career high four touchdowns last year with the Miami Dolphins — and Shaheen, the Bears have two new, big targets for an offense that tied for 24th in the NFL with 19 passing touchdowns a year ago. If Miller sticks around, this group would have enviable depth. But even if he doesn’t, the Bears liked what they saw from Brown last year (16 receptions, 124 yards, 1 TD in six games). There are fewer questions about the tight ends heading into training camp than the receivers, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Glennon leans on this unit, especially early in the season.