Editor’s note: As the Bears prepare for their season-opener against the Lions at Soldier Field on Sunday, ESPNChicago.com’s Michael C. Wright breaks down the roster by position. He takes a look at the offensive line in his first installment.
Chicago’s offensive line left lingering questions with its performance in the preseason, which won’t be answered until the club opens against an unremarkable Detroit Lions front seven, featuring rookie Ndamukong Suh.
The starting unit, comprised of center Olin Kreutz, right guard Lance Louis, right tackle Frank Omiyale, left guard Roberto Garza, and left tackle Chris Williams, allowed quarterback Jay Cutler to take 10 sacks in the preseason. Just as alarming are the numbers the Bears’ rushing attack put up in four exhibition outings.
While the preseason doesn’t count, there’s reason to be concerned about an offensive line that couldn’t consistently open up running lanes for Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. The Bears’ rushing attack ranked No. 20 in the preseason.
“The continuity of having the same five playing together is critical,” Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. “That’s what we need to do.”
But that’s not what the Bears have done since the end of the 2009 season.
Constant shuffling along the offensive line places the unit late in the game in terms of achieving the cohesiveness Angelo seeks. Basically, the Bears will trot out new starters on Sunday in four of the five offensive line spots, with only Kreutz manning the same position he played on opening day of last year. Williams played right tackle for 11 games in 2009, before switching to the left side, where he’ll play against the Lions. Omiyale played left guard last season, and Louis, the right guard, makes his first career start Sunday. Garza, meanwhile, moves from the right side -- where he started every game for the last four seasons -- to the left side.
It’s a situation definitely worth keeping a close watch on as the season unfolds.
“If you say, ‘What’s the toughest position to feed 32 NFL teams?’ it’s the offensive line,” Angelo said. “Offensive linemen are at a premium. But it’s not that you have to have five all-stars at the position. You have to have five guys that are good enough to play well together. That’s the key to good offensive play.”
Best Case Scenario
More narrowly focused game planning might cut down on the numerous protection packages in the playbook, which should allow the unit to play faster than it did in the preseason. Eliminating the thinking associated with trying to execute a plethora of protections gives the offensive line a fraction-of-a-second step on defenders, which might be enough for the unit to consistently protect Cutler.
Williams is the key as Cutler’s protection on the blind side. Williams needs to hold his own when placed in one-on-one situations, but the club must be proactive in getting him the help he needs -- via chipping from running backs or lining up tight ends to his side -- when necessary.
Worst Case Scenario
Because of injury or subpar play, the staff decides to continue tinkering with the offensive line. This, in turn, would lessen the trust Cutler has in the protection.
Cutler has demonstrated in the preseason somewhat of a penchant for performing skittishly from the pocket when he’s not confident in the protection. So the Bears can’t afford to let such a scenario unfold.
If and when needed, offensive line coach Mike Tice needs to quickly address any protection issues -- whether schematically or coaching up players -- to make sure Cutler maintains a certain level of comfort. But the worst thing the club can do -- especially early in the season, when the Bears are in contention -- is to start switching around the pieces like it did throughout the offseason and training camp. That would only place the unit where it was prior to the start of the offseason: in disarray.