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

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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: Akiem Hicks sees Tom Brady qualities in Jay Cutler

Bears: Akiem Hicks sees Tom Brady qualities in Jay Cutler

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Akiem Hicks has spent the better part of his four-year NFL career intent on annihilating quarterbacks. The defensive lineman also has spent those four years in the presence of two of the greats of this or any NFL era – Drew Brees in New Orleans and Tom Brady in New England.

He has seen some of what makes them great. And since joining the Bears last March, Hick has seen similar traits in his current quarterback – Jay Cutler.

“They have those intangibles,” Hicks told CSNChicago.com on Thursday. “All the stats that you see – the 4,000-yard seasons, the 50-touchdown [seasons] – they also have things that people don’t get to really get to see all the time. It’s something when you’re close to it and see it all the time… . Tom Brady, for instance. This is a real leader.

“And I see the same qualities in Jay Cutler – somebody who knows how to motivate his guys, knows when to get on his guys’ heads, all that. You see it all the time in practice and then it translates into the game. Guys believe in them more.”

Brady has won twice as many Super Bowls than Cutler has playoff games. The two are rarely mentioned in the same sentence.

But Hicks’ assessment of Cutler is not the first by a teammate to focus on the “L” word – Leadership. As Hicks says of Brady and Brees, outsiders do not see what teammates say. And that is the bigger point.

Bears camp shorts: Jay Cutler pick-free, QB's running, 'free hugs'

Bears camp shorts: Jay Cutler pick-free, QB's running, 'free hugs'

BOURBONNAIS — During a “team” session in Wednesday’s first practice of Bears 2016 training camp, cornerback Tracy Porter made a perfect break on a route by wide receiver Eddie Royal. The defensive back battled Royal for the ball, which then fell incomplete.

It was as close as anyone on the defense came to intercepting a Jay Cutler pass.

That wouldn’t really command much attention were it not that Cutler opened camp last year going 11 practices before throwing an interception in a drill, 7-on-7 or full-team session. It proved a foreshadowing of perhaps the single most important step forward by Cutler.

Obviously this is practice; it doesn’t count any more than preseason games do. But to dismiss any step toward ball security as insignificant is perspective-lite. The Bears track practice stats as part of their analytics for a reason, and “you play the way you practice” is a bromide of long standing for a reason. Had Cutler been throwing multiple picks every practice, the hand-wringing would have been epic.

[MORE: Kevin White not looking like a rookie as Bears open training camp]

Cutler did follow his improved ball-security camp by opening the season throwing interceptions in his first two games. Against Green Bay. Against Arizona. Against the No. 7 and No. 3 interception defenses in the NFL last year. He eventually threw four interceptions over his first six games — tying the lowest pick number through the first six games of any year in his 10-year career. The other year he had just four was 2011 — the year Cutler posted the best interception percentage (2.2) of his career. Last season was his second-best (2.3).

Reducing Cutler’s interceptions was THE primary specific targeted by Adam Gase and Dowell Loggains last offseason. What began in training camp carried over into the season.

- Jeremy Langford was haunted by a couple of costly pass drops last season, and improved receiving was a priority all offseason for the second-year running back. On Wednesday he consistently showed excellent receiving skills, wresting one catch away from linebacker Danny Trevathan.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Bears fans!

- Rookie Cody Whitehair stepped in at left guard with the No. 1 unit while Ted Larsen was dealing with a calf injury. On Wednesday, Larsen and Whitehair each were working at both guard and center as the Bears develop both versatility and competition levels at the interior-line spots….

- The Bears won’t be running heavy doses of read-options but that isn’t exempting quarterbacks from working on their running techniques along with backs and receivers, cutting, running and being buffeted by blocking dummies under the vociferous directions of running backs coach Stan Drayton.

- Think a little courtesy doesn’t help? A young boy stood along the ropes on Wednesday holding up a large sign, “Free hugs 4 Bears.” Yes, he did give out a couple of hugs and got some autographs and smiles in return.

Kevin White not looking like a rookie as Bears open training camp

Kevin White not looking like a rookie as Bears open training camp

BOURBONNAIS — Call it a linebacker’s worst nightmare. Twice.

First it was outside linebacker Lamarr Houston, who found himself with wide receiver Kevin White on a pass route that made the wideout — he of 4.35 speed in the 40 — the coverage responsibility of a 274-pound defender whose specialty is going after quarterbacks.

White streaked away from Houston and caught Jay Cutler’s pass for a win for the offense.

Two snaps later it was inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, whose first NFL interception was of a Cutler pass while Freeman was a member of the Indianapolis Colts, and who suddenly became the latest Bear defender to understand that with White, “if he’s even, he’s leavin’." To his credit, Freeman never lost sight of White, but neither was the overmatched linebacker more than a minor annoyance on the route that ended with another completion from Cutler.

“You know I think having our receivers out there healthy and able to practice, whether it’s Kevin or Alshon [Jeffery] or even Eddie Royal,” head coach John Fox said. “I think you feel the difference when they are out there playing.”

[MORE: Rough first camp day for Kyle Long, Bears No. 1 draft pick Leonard Floyd]

(Motion seconded by Messrs. Houston, Freeman.)

White was not done looking like anything but an inexperienced young player who’d missed his rookie season and virtually all of training camp with a stress fracture to his left leg. He made a twisting grab of another Cutler toss in the 7-on-7 drill, and later worked himself open on a broken play, making a sliding catch to save a pass from Cutler on the run.

Cutler and White spent time together in the offseason, away from football, and one result is the receiver understanding what his quarterback needs and demands.

“If he wants me at 9 yards, at 10 yards, come back down the line or run back to him, that’s what I have to do,” White said. “We’re continuing to do that.”

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016 season, Bears fans!

White was practicing late last season before the Bears opted to leave him shut down after their season all but ended with the disappointing losses to San Francisco and Washington. The lost season set him behind on his learning curve, particularly given his relative inexperience playing at the highest level at West Virginia.

But the Bears also gave White’s injury time to heal rather than rush their No. 7-overall draft choice onto the field. The time off allowed more than just the stress-fracture surgery to mend.

“I had a whole year to recover, mentally and physically,” White said. “If we’d had had this talk last year, it would have mentally been a little rough as far as getting on my routes and trying not to run with a limp. And obviously taking a hit.

“But I’ve had a whole year to get it right. I thank the organization for giving me the time, and so I’m ready mentally and physically.”