Training camp preview: offensive line
Olin Kreutz's declaration that he's ready to go provided positive news for the start of the Bears training camp, set to kick off Friday in Bourbonnais.
The 33-year-old center looks to bounce back from offseason Achilles surgery, while holding down the middle of a unit that is under heavy fire heading into camp.
The scrutiny seems warranted, given the offensive line's 2009 production. The Bears ranked in the top half (14th) of the NFL in sacks allowed (35), and quarterback hits (79), and the offensive line provided the lead blocks for 34 runs that produced negative yardage.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz's pedigree as a play caller; Jay Cutler's cannon arm; the backfield duo of Matt Forte and Chester Taylor; the club's talented young receivers -- none of those make a difference if the line doesn't perform at a higher standard than it did a year ago. In addition to all the sacks and hits Cutler absorbed last season en route to throwing a league-high 26 interceptions, defenders hurried the quarterback on 22 percent of the Bears' pass plays, which ranks as the fourth-highest percentage in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
Such futility won't be acceptable this year if the Bears expect to produce a winner, and save the current regime from what could be a massive overhaul of the staff at season's end. However, the sacks might prove to be unavoidable, given Martz's history.
Martz's offenses have averaged 577.4 passes and 47.4 sacks throughout his career in the NFL, likely due to the high number of five- and seven-step drops employed by the system. So it's unlikely the Bears can avoid high sack totals. New offensive line coach Mike Tice just needs to find a way to minimize Cutler's exposure to contact, which would also play a vital role in keeping down the quarterback's interception numbers, fumbles -- and most importantly -- potential for injury.
Uncertainty at left guard (Johan Asiata currently holds the job, but he's competing with Josh Beekman and Lance Louis to keep it), and Frank Omiyale's attempt to transition outside from guard to right tackle certainly complicates matters, along with the return of Kreutz (will he be completely healthy?), a six-time Pro Bowler. Right guard Roberto Garza is coming off a subpar 2009 season, and could wind up competing at camp with younger players for his spot.
The development of left tackle Chris Williams is also worth keeping an eye on, considering he moved over to his current position last season for the final five games.
Ideally, the Bears would've logged more offseason repetitions with the entire starting offensive line in place. But they couldn't make that happen due to Kreutz's recovery (Beekman took most of the offseason reps at center), and the shuffling of personnel at left guard for the majority of the offseason between Asiata, Louis and Kevin Shaffer.
Regardless of what the staff says, the lack of offseason repetitions with the starting line puts the unit at somewhat of a disadvantage in terms of building the cohesiveness needed to effectively protect Cutler. It could also force the staff to subject the offensive line to more preseason snaps, which would increase the risk for injury. In the division alone, the Bears face sack machines such as Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (10 sacks in 2009), and Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (14.5 sacks).
But before focusing on opposing pass rushers, the Bears first need to shore up themselves on the offensive line. Without consistent production up front, Martz's high-flying attack won't ever make it off the ground.