Cutler seeing progress in Bears' OL
August, 30, 2011
By Michael C. Wright | ESPNChicago.com
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRoberto Garza and the Bears' first-team offensive line have yielded just one sack in the last two games.LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler's trademark surliness returned Tuesday, but in four minutes of short answers the quarterback shed light on the progress of the highly scrutinized offensive line.
"They're getting there," Cutler said, "just like everybody else on this team."
Coming off solid back-to-back performances in which it allowed only one sack, the offensive line isn't yet ready to declare its arrival. After all, the unit led the league in sacks allowed in 2010, and of the five current starters only one -- left guard Chris Williams -- played his current position last season.
According to some of the coaching staff, Williams played the most inconsistently of the offensive line a year ago. Now, he's one of the unit's most reliable members. Williams boiled down offensive-line play to its simplest form in gauging the unit's progress and prospects for the regular season.
"We seem to be taking steps in the right direction. Me personally, I'm still making some silly mistakes that we've got to get cleaned up," Williams said. "I think O-line play in itself is just consistency; just being able to do the same thing over and over again. That's what we're trying to do."
It appears to be working.
"It doesn't happen overnight," Cutler said. "So it's progress, and we're headed in the right direction -- day by day, game by game -- we'll be ready [for the regular-season opener]."
Despite the offensive line surrendering nine sacks in the preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills, offensive line coach Mike Tice decided to stick with the same group headed into Week 2 against the New York Giants.
Don McPeak/US PresswireMatt Forte said he and Jay Cutler are confident in their offensive line.
The unit repaid Tice's faith with rock-solid protection through improved play from left tackle J'Marcus Webb and right guard Lance Louis, who struggled more than the rest of the group in the opener. Over the past two games, the club's quarterbacks dropped back to pass 88 times and suffered just two sacks.
But perhaps the most marked improvement comes in the team's run blocking.
Although Mike Martz's reputation as an offensive coordinator is built on the passing game, Bears coach Lovie Smith has been adamant about the club approaching games with a run-first mentality.
According to sources within the organization, Garza represents an upgrade over the departed Olin Kreutz in strength and stoutness at the point of attack. But he lacks Kreutz's awareness, the sources said, which in time will come for Garza with more repetitions at center.
"It's still the preseason, and we know we have to get better every week. All this work is for a goal," Garza said. "It's to get out there and do it in the regular season when the intensity picks up. I feel like we're getting better as a group, but we've still got to get better. When that regular season starts, we have to go out there and still prove all this to everybody. "
With Williams taking the majority of the snaps, the Bears ran the ball over the left guard 19 times this preseason for an average of 5.1 yards. The team called up 18 runs up the middle this preseason -- most of them behind Garza manning the center spot -- for an average of 4.56 yards.
The next most-consistent performer -- rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi -- has led the way on the majority of the 10 runs over right end for an average gain of 6.9 yards.
Chicago's average on runs to all three spots -- over left guard, center and right end -- rank in the top 10 in the NFL this preseason.
"With the young guys, you see a lot of rapid development from them from day to day," said running back Matt Forte. "Because they're so young, they're getting better every day. So they're coming together as a group. Me and Jay [Cutler], we have a lot of confidence in those guys up there. We know they can get the job done."
Louis maintains that among the five starters, "I've got the most to work on; just getting comfortable, relaxing, just playing my part and not trying to do too much."
Battling through a lower-leg injury, Louis came close to being pulled from the starting lineup in favor of Edwin Williams; a situation that could still transpire depending on how Louis progresses.
In addition to technical improvements, the Bears, Louis said, are becoming more adept at recognizing defenses and making adjustments "as we work together on double blocks and things like that."
"We got blitzed a lot last year," Cutler said. "The Titans brought some blitzes. I would imagine Cleveland will show a lot of stuff [Thursday night in the preseason finale]. You're going to get your work. We do blitz drills against our defense all the time. We're definitely seeing enough blitz work for us this [pre]season."
Despite the unit's early inconsistency, it continues to play relatively clean football. Of the Bears' four holding penalties this preseason, just two can be attributed to the offensive line, which has also been responsible for three false-start calls (two from Carimi and one from left tackle J'Marcus Webb); five penalties total.
During games in which the Bears protected Cutler by allowing only one sack last season (the team gave up multiple sacks in all but three games), the club averaged nearly 30 points in going 3-0, with Cutler racking up an 8 to 1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
So when he's protected, Cutler does damage to opposing defenses. That's a fact not lost on anybody within the organization, and one of the chief reasons for the offensive line's current sense of urgency to make large strides.
"Guys have been in the system. They know what's expected," Cutler said. "Martz is very demanding, but he also tells the guys exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. So we've got a good core group of guys, who have been in the system, and they know what they're doing. I'm not going to grade [the progression of the offense]. This is preseason. Games start counting when we play Atlanta, and we'll figure it out then."