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.

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Sometimes the passage of time makes things a little sweeter.
 
Josh Sitton had been selected to three Pro Bowls while a member of the Green Bay Packers. At the end of training camp last year, the Packers abruptly released Sitton.
 
On Monday, Sitton was named to his fourth Pro Bowl, replacing former Green Bay teammate T.J. Lang. At age 30, this Pro Bowl was special.
 
"It's a great honor, always a goal of mine every year," Sitton said via conference call. "It's an honor to me and to the guys I play with, the guys helping me along...
 
"I would say just the age thing, the older you get, the more you appreciate them. You can't play at a high level in this game so the whole age thing makes it even more special."

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When the Bears were forced to go into Week 1 of the 2015 season with a shuffled offensive line, the situation wasn't ideal; Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long moving to right tackle as a hurried fill when neither Charles Leno nor Jordan Mills were an answer.
 
The 2016 season also began with an unexpected and significant shuffle, but this time with one that immediately bumped up the quality of the line. GM Ryan Pace moved quickly to sign Sitton after his release by the Green Bay Packers, a step that bumped rookie Cody Whitehair from guard to center, where he earned All-Rookie honors from the Pro Football Writers Association of America.
 
"It was challenging for sure," Sitton said. "It was something I haven't had to do for quite some time but it was stimulating being thrown in and needing to learn the offense in four or five days."
 
Sitton, who signed a three-year contract worth as much as $21 million with $10 million guaranteed, joins rookie running back Jordan Howard as the two Bears scheduled to play in the Pro Bowl. He started 12 of 13 games in 2016, missing time with an ankle injury but being a strong presence in a line that ranked No. 8 in sack percentage while getting Howard to a franchise-record 1,313 rushing yards even with a rookie center and a group that never played a game together before Week 1 in Houston against the Texans.
 
"I think we can only get better, now that we'll have an offseason together," Sitton said. "We'll see what we can do."