- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is the sixth installment of a 10-part series that reviews every Bears position group on offense and defense, while also taking a quick look at potential free agent targets and the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft.
The offensive line -- namely the tackle position -- showed progress in 2011 with a second-year player (J’Marcus Webb) starting on the left side, and rookie Gabe Carimi manning the right. Sacks per game dropped for quarterback Jay Cutler to an average of 3.25, from 13.65 in 2010.
Still those numbers remain too high.
“Whenever your quarterback is getting hit, that’s a concern,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said at the end of the season. “We have a franchise quarterback first off in Jay Cutler, who is as good as there is out there. We want to protect him as much as possible. Our quarterback has been hit too many times around here. That’s one of the areas that we’ll need to improve, but it can be done.”
It won’t require revamping the unit or miraculous improvement from the players, either, despite the common perception the offensive line is deficient in the talent department. What often wasn’t publicized in 2011 was the devastating effect the team’s scheme played in the line’s ability to protect Cutler.
For a good portion of the season, the Bears tried to protect Cutler using five-man protections, which essentially left Webb and Carimi -- and later Frank Omiyale and Lance Louis -- alone on the outside against opponents’ top pass rushers while making the unit undermanned in blitz situations. The team also called several plays involving five- and seven-step drops for Cutler, which extended the time the quarterback held onto the ball, thus exposing him to more potential punishment.
Of the 23 sacks Cutler suffered in 10 outings, 18 of them occurred in the first five games.
So the Bears eventually remedied the sack situation by calling plays that allowed Cutler to get rid of the ball quicker. The staff also employed more maximum protection on passes, kept tight ends in passing downs, and chipped with the running backs.
The Bears plan to go a similar route in 2012 schematically with Mike Tice as the new offensive coordinator. In addition to tweaking the scheme to make it even more run oriented, the Bears plan to build into the system the ability to audible at the line of scrimmage, and install plays that employ moving pockets to take advantage of Cutler’s mobility.
Throw in the anticipated growth of Webb, who enters his third season, and rising second-year man Carimi -- who Tice said was “playing winning football” before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 18 at New Orleans -- and it’s understandable that Smith remains optimistic about the line’s prospects for 2012.
“I would normally not talk a lot about positions and what we’re gonna do next year,” Smith said. “But I think as we looked at the offensive line, as we’ve critiqued that offensive line in my years here so many times, I think this is the best situation we’ve been in since I’ve been here with our offensive line.”
THE CURRENT ROSTER
J’Marcus Webb: The most maligned of the team’s tackles, Webb started his first season at left tackle after starting on the right side as a rookie. According to Pro Football Focus, Webb ranked as the worst full-time starter at his position in the NFL, and was responsible for 38 pressures. In addition Webb was penalized a team-high 15 times for 82 yards (43 nullified), resulting in eight stalled drives. The staff remains high on the left tackle, and Tice often defended Webb’s play in 2011. Part of that stems from the immense talent Webb possesses, which has allowed him to put forth lights-out performances against some of the league’s best. Case in point: Webb’s strong outing on Nov. 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles. In that game, Webb -- matched up against one of the league’s best pass rushers in Trent Cole -- surrendered only one pressure on 36 drop backs. The team’s first inclination will be to leave Webb on the left side, but it could explore moving over Carimi from the right side or moving Chris Williams from guard back to tackle.
Gabe Carimi: The 29th pick of the 2011 draft, Carimi became an immediate starter at right tackle. Although not as gifted physically as Webb, Carimi makes very few mistakes and is a hard-nosed competitor. A partial dislocation of Carimi’s right kneecap suffered Sept. 18 at New Orleans ended a promising start from the rookie. Then Carimi opted in December to undergo further surgery to stabilize his right knee. The latest procedure will tighten ligaments and require Carimi to rehab for four months, according to sources. But the team expects Carimi to be able to participate in at least a portion of the offseason program. Carimi elected to undergo the procedure to keep his knee from becoming a recurring issue so the prognosis is positive.
Frank Omiyale: The Bears' second-most penalized offensive lineman, Omiyale was flagged seven times for 35 yards in 2011, resulting in three stalled drives. Despite the negative perception of Omiyale, the staff is actually high on the veteran as a swing tackle, capable of backing up multiple spots. A seven-year veteran, Omiyale started three games at right tackle last season. He’s scheduled to make $2.1 million in the final year of a four-year contract signed in 2009.
Levi Horn: Signed with the team as an undrafted rookie in 2010, Horn has spent the majority of his time on the Bears practice squad. The club promoted Horn to the active roster in November, but he was inactive for the final six games. Although he’s listed as a tackle, Horn also worked at guard with the second team during training camp last year. Horn could eventually develop into the Bears' swing tackle.
Perry Dorrestein: An undrafted rookie from Michigan, Dorrestein signed to the Bears practice squad on Nov. 23. Dorrestein started 31 games at Michigan over three years. But it’s unclear whether he’ll still be with the team in late July for training camp.
Bears free agents: None
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
Marcus McNeil, San Diego Chargers, (will be cut in March, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune)
WHY BEARS MIGHT STAND PAT
The Bears consider themselves set at the starting positions. But there has to be some concern about the potential timeline for Carimi’s expected recovery. Still, the club has enough depth to compensate for a delayed recovery so the Bears aren’t likely to spend in free agency at tackle. Tice has said that unless a can’t-miss prospect falls into the team’s lap in the draft, it likely wouldn’t use a first-round pick on an offensive lineman, either. But that doesn’t mean the Bears won’t acquire some players late in the draft or add a couple of undrafted rookies. Tice is considered one of the league’s best at evaluating offensive linemen, and he has a track record for uncovering unheralded gems. Also keep this in mind: Tice prefers offensive linemen with the body type and size of tackles that can also kick inside to play guard.