O-line key for Bears to turn season around

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O-line key for Bears to turn season around

Twice in the span of barely a year, the Bears have accomplished major season-altering turnarounds. Now, to save 2011, they need a third.

And the group squarely at the crossroads with the heaviest turnaround load, as it was at the off week in October 2010 and again after the consecutive losses to New Orleans and Green Bay in September, is the offensive line.

The line was the point of the spear that reversed the slide last year after the sack nightmares against the Giants, Seahawks and Redskins. It was the main difference going from five sacks against Atlanta, six at New Orleans and three vs. Green Bay to just nine sacks over the next seven games.

But Caleb Hanie was sacked four times at Oakland and seven by Kansas City and the offense has averaged less than four yards per carry in three of the last four games.

The line, and the Bears, are at a crossroads.

I'm completely confident in those guys, said Hanie, who took blame for some of the sacks by the Chiefs in particular. They're playing their butts off in there. From left tackle to right tackle, from J'Marcus Webb to Lance Louis, they're going to fight, and that's what type of group they are, and I'm confident they'll have a good game.

They will need it.

Broncos battles

Where the Chiefs came into the Bears game with only 13 total sacks, the Broncos have 32 and with edge rushers in end Elvis Dumervil and linebacker Von Miller significantly better than what either Oakland or Kansas City fielded.

They are fast. They are very fast, said line coach Mike Tice. They are very tenacious. They remind me a lot of the Steelers. They get after it pretty damn good.

Miller in particular; the Bears think enough of him to put a red 58 jersey on a scout-team linebacker to condition the offense to accounting for Miller.

Hes a phenomenal player, Tice said. Were going to know where hes at all times.

Confidence crisis?

The line was not helped by play-calling in the fourth quarter vs. Kansas City that consisted of 15 pass plays and two runs but played generally OK except for Louis, who had perhaps his worst game of the year. He was beaten by speed rushers for multiple sacks after a steady run of strong performances previously both as a blocker and running down a Raider to save a touchdown.

Now he is at a particular crossroads with the Bears needing him to put a nightmare game behind him.

I think theyve been doing a great job, Tice said. We had unfortunate circumstance with one of our players who didnt play up to the way he had been playing. For a guy who has been thrown over there, at right tackle, who has been holding the fort pretty good. Im not down on him. Hes down on himself, a little bit right now. I dont think he should be. We could have helped him as a staff, a little more, and we will, moving forward.

Hes got to bounce back, and we all got to bounce back.

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Bears establishing smash-mouth core with Jordan Howard

Eric Kush was in some pain after the Bears win over the San Francisco 49ers. But it was a “good” pain, particularly since part of it was inflicted by a teammate.

The teammate was running back Jordan Howard, and the Bears left guard was learning along with his linemates that when Howard is coming, “he’s a-comin’,” Kush said.

“Oh man, sometimes you’re, ‘[groan-groan-groan], and he’ll hit you right in the back, you fall and try to take your guy down with you and stick him in the snow so you’re not the only one getting soaking wet and cold. But Jordan’s a lot fun and we try to kick some butt for him.”

The rookie running back has become more than simply a draft nugget from the fifth round of this year’s draft. Howard has established himself as an integral part of a winning formula of complimentary football, the concept long favored by John Fox, Lovie Smith and coaches who operate from the foundation of a premier running game, impact defense and solid special teams.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

The Bears’ three wins have come this season in the only games in which Howard has been given 20-plus carries: 23 vs. Detroit, 26 vs. Minnesota, 32 vs. San Francisco. Add to those the 3 pass receptions against the Lions and the 4 against the Vikings and the true centerpiece of the 2016 Bears offense is more than a little apparent.

For obvious reasons beyond simply the rushing numbers.

“Especially pass protection,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “I think he's taken a big jump that way. When you're young in this league, those are the things that can get grey for you. You run the football, he's obviously a talented player there, but in pass pro, he's made his biggest growth.”

As a corollary to Howard, San Francisco was only the second game this season in which the Bears called fewer than 30 pass plays (the only other time was at Green Bay, when the Bears only ran a total of 45 plays, 27 of them pass plays). In that respect, the snow was viewed as an ally by some in the locker room who have been unhappy at the run:pass balance, which was just 36-percent-run coming into the 49ers game.

“It was one of these games where, with the weather, we couldn’t pass the ball like we normally do —  30 times — so we had to keep it on the ground,” said one member of the offense.

Howard’s breakout game as an NFL ball carrier came against the Lions (23 carries, 111 rushing yards, 3 receptions). The Bears, looking for a breakout of their own in the form of a first two-game win streak in more than a year, are expected to keep it simple — and in Howard’s hands.

“I always expected a lot out of myself,” Howard said. “I didn’t really think that things would happen maybe this soon or this fast. I’m definitely grateful for it.”

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

Bears looking into Teryl Austin’s past for clues on how Lions will scheme vs. Matt Barkley

The adage “play the man, not the board” seems somehow appropriate for what the Bears are doing to prepare for the Detroit Lions behind quarterback Matt Barkley.

“The man” is Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and the Bears have been scouting him as well as his defenses, beyond just Bears games, beyond this season and last, taking in his 2014 Detroit season when Austin prepared defenses for Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen.

How did Austin scheme for rookie Carson Wentz when the Lions played (and beat) the Philadelphia Eagles? How did he structure is defense to stop a rookie Teddy Bridgewater when Detroit played Minnesota? (Not very well, apparently, since the Vikings won both games and scored 54 points combined in the two games).

While the John Fox Bears staff went against Austin’s Lions defense twice last year, Cutler was the Bears quarterback. When the Bears beat Austin and the Lions two months ago, it was with Brian Hoyer.

Now the Bears quarterback is Matt Barkley, who has fewer NFL games played (seven) than Cutler has NFL seasons (11), Hoyer (eight), too, for that matter.

“Different defensive coordinators attack young quarterbacks differently,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “Some guys blitz, some guys play a bunch of zone. This group on defense there, they have a really good defensive coordinator, they're really smart, they do a bunch of stuff. On the back end, they run all the coverages.

“As a game, we'll have to make adjustments as the game goes and see what their plan to come out is early.”

Coaches and players may talk about how they prepare for a scheme irrespective of which opposing quarterback, running back, linebacker or whatever they will be facing. But in fact, preparations start with who is orchestrating the opponent’s offense or defense – play the man, not the board.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

A risk can be out-thinking yourself trying to anticipate what a coordinator will do. The first point, Loggains said, is to start with your own strengths.

“We definitely look at that,” Loggains said. “As you go in the league long and longer, you face these guys, you see them in crossover games. We always know how a guy attacks a rookie quarterback or attacks a young quarterback, a veteran, or, in Matt's case, a guy who hasn't played as much.”

Evaluations of Barkley’s performance will broaden, particularly now that he is on tape for defensive coordinators to scheme for and scout. And while they are watching Barkley, the Bears are watching them.