Chicago Bears: Offensive Line
Depending on the moves made, the offensive line could look drastically different than the groups the team utilized over the first eight games of the season. The most interesting possibility involves moving starting right tackle Jordan Mills inside at Slauson’s left guard spot.
If that move took place, it would likely mean Michael Ola would stay at Mills’ starting position at right tackle. Ola filled in for Mills during Chicago’s loss at Green Bay as the latter continues to struggle to recover from an offseason foot surgery.
"We can go with Jordan moving into that [left guard] position. We could go with [veteran] Eben [Britton] moving into that position. We’ve got some young guys we’re developing. We’ll see how that goes along the way. But that will be the starting point," Trestman said.
Offensive tackle is Mills' and Britton's natural position. But the club’s decision to consider Mills for Slauson’s spot isn’t an indictment on the second-year veteran’s performance through the first half of the season. Although it’s also no secret Mills struggled in his past two outings prior to missing Sunday’s game at New England.
Trestman said Mills’ potential move is about versatility.
"I think he could fit into any position, I really do," Trestman said. "We’ve had some discussions about it to see what is going to be best for our line with Matt moving out, and we’ll continue to do that. I’m leaving that open-ended. We’ll see where that goes."
Bears general manager Phil Emery tried to explain during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The move came on a day of sweeping changes at Halas Hall for an offensive line that gave up six sacks Monday night in a 32-7 loss at San Francisco. The Bears demoted left guard Chilo Rachal, who subsequently left the team on Wednesday in favor of veteran Chris Spencer.
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Cutler admitted the club can’t win with the offensive line giving up six sacks on backup Jason Campbell the way it did Monday, as he watched from Chicago while recovering from a concussion. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice revealed changes could be on the way, and added that “at a certain point a player, a man needs to grit his teeth, buck up and win a fight.”
"I don't want to use the word setback," Carimi said after the Bears’ 23-22 win. "But maybe (it's) a check that we have to keep on working as hard as we have to keep producing as we want to. So it's more of check that we have to keep on working hard. We're not the O-line we know we can be. But when we are, we can be a good O-line unit."
Following a loss to the Green Bay Packers when Cutler was sacked seven times, absorbed 12 hits and took his frustrations out on his offensive line, especially left tackle J’Marcus Webb, Cutler went as far as praising his line’s play in the 23-6 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
“The line played well,” Cutler said. “They had a little edge to them. You go into a game and you’re up in the third and fourth quarter and know you’re going to run the ball. Those guys came in when I needed it and opened up some holes. I thought the line played well.”
Cutler kept most of his offensive line comments to the general group afterward, but he did mention the play of left guard Chilo Rachal, who was making his first start this season.
“I think Chilo brings that edge to the offensive line, and he doesn’t take a lot of grief in there,” Cutler said. “He’s a big guy. He’s kind of a mauler and I feel comfortable with him in there.”
Rachal thought that sort of mentality was needed on the offensive line.
“It’s very important,” Rachal said. “We’re the nasties. We can’t expect the other positions to be nasty. As an offensive line, the team feeds off our energy. That’s just my style of play – play (ticked) off.”
Rachal also thought Webb came out with a purpose on Sunday after his recent difficulties.
“That’s my teammate, that’s my buddy on the left side,” Rachal said. “He comes to work and comes to play every day. Like I said, people make mistakes, you learn from them and you get back and fix them.”
The Rams got to Cutler occasionally on Sunday, but it was nowhere near the extent the Packers did. Cutler was sacked twice (both by defensive end Chris Long) and hurried six times by the Rams.
Bears coach Lovie Smith also believed the offensive line had improved.
“I thought we did some good things with the protection for the most part was pretty good,” Smith said. “Again, the line did a good job of opening up some holes.
“I was happy with the game. It’s pretty simple guys. When things don’t go well, we’re going to be really unhappy. But when you find the way as a football team to win the game, we are going to enjoy that first and then go back to the field and correct things.”
"I don't think anyone else in the league has five, six guys that can rotate in that front four that can play like those guys," Cutler said. "So it's going to be a tough test for them.
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This couldn't be the new O-line friendly system the club raved about executing all offseason.
"Running game wise, offensively we weren't able to establish anything and the protection wasn't good," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We're not ready for prime time yet, but we'll hit the practice field as soon as we can and start making the necessary improvement."
That's imperative with the regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts fast approaching and training camp practice time dwindling. The Bears travel back to Bourbonnais and hit the field on Saturday to try to correct the many mistakes made against the Broncos in preparation for their Aug. 18 contest against the Washington Redskins.
A quick look at just the first half of Thursday's game reveals quite a bit in terms of where the Bears stand on the offensive line. While it's important to note the Broncos finished the 2011 season tied 10th in sacks, led by Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, it's also worth mentioning the team actually finished 20th in total defense and 22nd against the run, allowing an average of 126.3 yards per game.
So while protection issues against the Broncos could be expected, Chicago's inability to run the ball wasn't.
The Bears ran eight times in the first half for 11 yards, gaining just 41 yards total as the offensive line allowed three sacks. Chicago's vanilla approach and lack of an offensive game plan likely contributed to the club's ineffectiveness on offense. But the players wouldn't use that as an excuse for the unit's overall lack of production.
"The other team probably did the same thing," said right guard Lance Louis. "We still want to come out and whatever plays they call, we want to execute them."
Left guard Chris Spencer acknowledged that the lack of a game plan "definitely makes a difference," but added "we've still got to go out and execute what's called."
"We don't really game plan in the preseason, so we're really just doing the stuff we've been doing in training camp," Spencer said.
"Still we've got to do a better job of executing what's called anyway, regardless of what the game plan says."
It's likely that offensive coordinator Mike Tice feels the same way. But he wasn't available for comment after Thursday night's game.
Quarterback Jason Campbell, who was sacked once filling in for starter Jay Cutler, managed to complete 4 of 5 for 13 yards in three offensive series, but was under duress on some of his throws.
"We've been flip-flopping guys (on the offensive line) a little bit to try and find the group," Campbell said. "Those guys are working their butts off in practice trying to get better. It wasn't a showing we would like to come out and have. But we'll just continue to grow and continue to move forward."
On the positive side -- although it's still somewhat negative -- the Bears moved backward because of penalties on the offensive line just three times throughout the game. Officials flagged left tackle J'Marcus Webb and guards Edwin Williams and Louis once each for false start penalties.
Webb, who is battling Chris Williams for the starting job at left tackle, played well into the fourth quarter. Williams saw extensive action, too. Smith identified Webb and Williams as "some players we thought needed reps, we needed to see" in explaining why the club gave them extended playing time.
"I've got to get better with knowing situations, and getting better with the camaraderie of my fellow linemen," said Webb, who committed an NFL-high 15 penalties in 2011. "I think it was a time to get better. I'm a young player, and if the team needs me to stay in then I will."
Naturally, Game 1 of the preseason shouldn't bring about panic. But at the same time, the Bears failed to assuage their most pressing concern entering the 2012 season.
In former offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme, the Bears gave up 49 sacks (fifth-most in the NFL) in 2011. So the prevailing thought all offseason was that the offensive line would perform better in Tice's system, which emphasizes the running game and protecting the quarterback.
It hasn't just yet.
"As a line, we definitely want to see this tape, just look at it. Next game, everybody wants to make a big jump; come out and play great," Louis said. "We've got some things to work on, but we'll get better from here. We're going to be alright."
Here are a few observations from the opening day of the Chicago Bears' three-day minicamp, which kicked off on Tuesday at Halas Hall:
• Tight end Brandon Venson made arguably the most interesting play of one-on-one drills against the defense when he snagged a pass one-handed with safety Chris Conte seemingly in position to intercept the ball.
“It’s on target. It’s an easy ball to catch,” Marshall said. “In this league, separation could just be an inch. That's why you see that the great passing teams with the great quarterbacks, they know, they just know how to take advantage of that separation, even when it's just an inch, and Jay’s balls ARE SO tight, and he gets it there on time. It's hard for any DB in this league to break on those balls.”
• So much for talk of receiver Devin Hester potentially taking a break from special teams. Hester returned both punts and kickoff returns during Tuesday’s session.
• The Bears kicked off the team portion of Tuesday’s session with the following starting offensive line: C Roberto Garza, LG Chris Spencer, LT Chris Williams, RG Lance Louis and RT Gabe Carimi. Williams appeared to receive the bulk of the repetitions at left tackle, but he and J’Marcus Webb consistently alternated at the position. In fact, the club made sure that Webb and Williams took all of the first and second-team reps at left tackle.
• As Brian Urlacher continued to rehab his knee injury, Nick Roach worked at middle linebacker while Geno Hayes slid in at strong side linebacker with the first team defense. Tim Jennings got starter's reps at cornerback.
• Rookie wide receiver Alshon Jeffery sat out Tuesday with what Bears head coach Lovie Smith called a lower-leg injury. Smith is hopeful Jeffery will be able to participate before minicamp wraps up on Thursday.
• Nickel back D.J. Moore had a key interception in a full-team drill.
• Earl Bennett stretched the field numerous times from the slot and looks poised to be a dangerous weapon in the new offense under Mike Tice.
• Five players practiced with the team Tuesday on a tryout basis. Those players included Mike Holmes of Syracuse, Darcy Johnson of Central Florida, Embry Peeples of Georgia Tech, Eli Joseph of Temple and Cory Brandon of Oklahoma.
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So while the staff prefers to not make changes up front, contingency plans still exist should one or multiple members of the line falter Saturday night against the Titans.
Currently manned by third-year veteran Lance Louis, right guard remains the position up front most under scrutiny. Louis was hampered somewhat throughout the week with a shin injury, and if he fails to perform against the Titans, the Bears, according to an NFL source, are strongly considering playing Edwin Williams in that spot.
Williams started three games last season in Louis' place, before eventually giving way to Roberto Garza on Nov. 7.
It's also worth noting that offensive line coach Mike Tice has effusively praised Williams' performance over the first two preseason outings.
According to another source, the Bears remain confident in Garza at center, which means Chris Spencer will stay a backup for right now. The staff has been encouraged by the progress made by Spencer, who is still becoming more accustomed to the team's bruising style of run blocking, but it isn't yet sold on the seven-year veteran's ability as a potential starter.
Second-year man J'Marcus Webb appeared to solidify his status as the starter at left tackle with a strong outing last week against the New York Giants. Tice has said Webb and left guard Chris Williams are the only “elite athletes” among the starting linemen, with Williams and rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi playing the most consistently throughout the preseason.
Webb's athleticism likely gives him a pass if he doesn't perform well against the Titans, but the club wants to see him duplicate last week's performance. Veteran Frank Omiyale remains an option at left tackle, but the Bears will be reluctant to insert him into the lineup without giving Webb ample time to develop.
"I think we're definitely getting there," Cutler said. "The Giants game was a huge confidence boost not only for our offensive line, but for me in their ability to protect me and to do some of the stuff we want to do like seven-step drops and get rid of the ball quick.
"The more I work with them and they work with me, the more comfortable we're going to get."
Cutler singled out J'Marcus Webb and Lance Louis as two who stepped up during the 41-13 loss.
"I think J'Marcus was night and day different," Cutler said. "He went against a talented pass rusher [<Jason Pierre-Paul] over there and he did a heck of a job all night.
"Lance got dinged up a little on his shin but fought through it. Whether he would have done that last year we don't know. He fought through it and played well."
After getting sacked 52 times last season and losing center Olin Kreutz to the New Orleans Saints, Cutler needs a talented and confident offensive line. He seems to be doing his best at providing the confidence.
"All five of those guys want to play well," Cutler said. "I think that's a good thing. Their effort is outstanding. They want to do it right. They're doing everything [offensive line coach Mike] Tice asks them to do. As long as they keep doing that, we'll be fine."
In doing so, Garza says he'll lean on lessons learned from six years of playing alongside recently departed Olin Kreutz, while continuing the standard of accountability established by his former comrade.
"Olin's always been the guy, and I've always just sat back and watched what he's done. I'm trying to do things the way he's done by trying to make the guys around you better," Garza said. "He's played so much football and has so much knowledge.
"Luckily, for me, I got a chance to play with him and learn from him. Now is the time for me to share that knowledge and everything he taught me, and try to continue his leadership role on the offensive line."
It won't be easy. Ten days into training camp, offensive line coach Mike Tice boldly declared his starting five of Garza at center, Chris Williams and Lance Louis at left and right guard and J'Marcus Webb at left tackle and rookie first rounder Gabe Carimi manning the right-tackle spot.
Although he's started just one game at center throughout his 11-year career, it's up to Garza to orchestrate cohesion within this group.
"There's some anxiety there for Roberto. He's only started one game at center in his career," Tice said. "At first, I don't know that he was totally embracing it. But he's such a team player that he's going to do what we ask him to do."
Prior to making the decision to move on without Kreutz, the Bears spoke with Garza about the possibility of moving to center. But Tice misread Garza's reaction to the move as trepidation.
The truth is Garza never expected Kreutz to leave.
"I thought Olin was coming back. I didn't think that was gonna even be an issue," Garza said. "He's moved on, [and we] wish him the best. Now, that's a role that I'm gonna be playing. I have to go out there and perform and do my job to the best of my abilities."
Tice admitted that Garza lacks Kreutz's awareness and chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler. But with the regular season closing in, Garza will have to develop some of those attributes quickly, Tice said.
"Roberto has given me a lot of good advice lately, and he really seems like a good leader on this team," Carimi said. "It seems like we're really getting it."
For Cutler's sake, hopefully that's the case.
The Bears changed the lineup on the offensive line five times last season in the first eight games. Bears coach Lovie Smith, general manager Jerry Angelo and Tice wanted to avoid a similar situation this season.
"We're getting a great evaluation of our offensive line," Smith said. "We have an idea [of how the line will look in the regular-season opener against Atlanta], but we'll continue to let it work itself out."
It's worth noting that after the lineup change in 2010, the Bears still gave up 25 more sacks, and enter this season with a group that has a combined 16 starts at their current positions. So regardless of how anyone on the coaching staff paints it, the situation is cause for concern.
Interestingly, Williams is the only player with extensive experience (11 starts) at his current position.
"We still have to go out and prove it, and we'll get our first opportunity on Saturday against the Bills. Obviously, this group of guys has been working together, and we feel comfortable with each other," Garza said. "Going out on the field live in front of the fans, [and] the opposing team is when the real character of a guy comes out. So we'll see. I have all the trust in the guys I've been playing with. Those guys have been working hard every single day, getting better every day and that's where it starts."
The team brought in Chris Spencer as the potential replacement for Kreutz, signing him to a $6 million contract over two years. Spencer took Tice's announcement in stride, saying all he could do was "be prepared for when they call my number."
So there's a backup plan if Garza doesn't pan out or the line "falters", as Tice termed it. The new center just hopes Tice won't have to implement it.
"At guard, I was spoiled. Olin made everything. So now, it's on my shoulders to go out there and get everybody squared away," Garza said. "It's a learning process as well. I have to go out there and continue to learn and see some of the looks at center that I haven't seen from playing guard. We have all the film from last year to build off of. Obviously it's still early, and we've still got to go out and prove that we're gonna be a good offensive line."
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Although the offensive line fared much better in the second half of Sunday's 17-14 loss to the Washington Redskins, the Bears may be forced to alter the starting five once again when veteran guard Roberto Garza returns from a knee injury.
Garza underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee October 15, and he is expected to be available when the Bears face the Buffalo Bills in Toronto following the bye, according to head coach Lovie Smith.
"Having another veteran guy in the mix, of course, will help our football team," Smith said. "When Roberto gets back healthy, we'll put him into the mix. Against Buffalo, the group we feel gives us the best chance to win will be out there."
Garza, who can play both left and right guard, gives the Bears several options on the offensive line. The 10-year veteran could easily slide back to his old spot at right guard, which would force Edwin Williams or Lance Louis out of the lineup, or perhaps the Bears opt to return Garza to left guard, and move Chris Williams back to his natural left tackle position. That decision would be the most complicated, since it would require Frank Omiyale to likely slide back over to right tackle, but it's hard to envision Williams being a long-term solution at guard, especially after he was manhandled by Albert Haynesworth Sunday.
Granted, Haynesworth is an elite defensive tackle, but Williams is built like an offensive tackle, not a guard, and it showed versus the Redskins.
Or maybe Williams finds himself on the bench.
All possibilities are expected to be discussed when the Bears perform their self-evaluation during the bye week.
"We are going to put the [offensive line] group together when everyone gets there, and when we show up for the Buffalo game, you guys will see then," Smith said. "I don't think it will help the Bears to go over exactly what we are going to do then, as you guys can understand."