Bears: Roberto Garza
The Chicago Bears brought in California center Brian Schwenke on Wednesday for a pre-draft visit, lending credence to the notion the club plans to at least explore the option of adding the eventual successor to veteran Roberto Garza in the draft.
Projected to be a second- or third-round selection, Schwenke (6-foot-3, 314 pounds) is widely considered to be the No. 2 prospect at the position behind Wisconsin's Travis Frederick. Schwenke projects perhaps as the better option for the Bears because of his versatility. At California, Schwenke started his career at guard, where he started 24 games from 2010-11, before shifting to center in 2012, a position in which he earned first-team all-Pac 12 recognition.
At the Senior Bowl, Schwenke played all three inside offensive line positions during the week leading into the game, and his stock rose, according to several scouts in attendance.
"That's what people are saying," Schwenke said at the NFL combine. "I don't really pay attention to what people are saying often. But my agent and everybody's saying that it was a good experience for me, and it did me well. I just played my game. I don't know what (the scouts) saw in me that they didn't see in the season. But I just played how I normally play, and had fun doing it."
With Garza entering the final year of his deal, which will pay $1.75 million in 2013, the Bears know it's time to start looking for the veteran's heir apparent. But the Bears won't invest in the position with a first-round pick, and the club doesn't have a third-rounder because of the trade for receiver Brandon Marshall.
It's unlikely a rookie would unseat Garza in 2013, but the team could knock out two needs with one selection with a player such as Schwenke. First, the club would obviously add Garza's eventual replacement. At the same time, the addition would beef up the competition for one of the starting guard positions, where Gabe Carimi, James Brown, and Williams are competing for the spots opposite the recently-acquired Matt Slauson.
The next 10: 11. Dalton Freeman, Clemson, 6-4, 286; 12. Mario Benavides, Louisville, 6-2, 279; 13. James Ferentz, Iowa, 6-1, 289; 14. Mike Golic, Notre Dame, 6-4, 294; 15. Sam Schwartzstein, Stanford, 6-2, 290; 16. Matt Smith, Kentucky, 6-4, 295; 17. Eric Kush, California (Pa.), 6-4, 304; 18. Kyle Quinn, Arizona, 6-3, 288; 19. Ryan Turnley, Pittsburgh, 6-5, 310; 20. Skyler Allen, Ohio, 6-2, 286.
Position grade: B
Analysis: Garza enters the final year of his contract, and with him just turning 34, it's likely the Bears think it's now time to start looking toward the future at the position. The team recently signed Taylor Boggs, who signed with the New York Jets in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, but hasn't yet played in an NFL game. At this point, he appears to be more of a developmental prospect than a potential contributor in 2013. Outside of Garza and Boggs, the only other option on the roster at the position is veteran Edwin Williams, who is listed as a guard/center, but has never logged a start at center. So it's safe to say the Bears are eyeing the position in the draft perhaps in the second round or later. Look for the team to try to add a center of the future in this year's draft.
Former guard Roberto Garza has done his best to make it work at the position, but most people would agree that guard is his best position. (Pro Football Focus has made him one of their lowest-ranked centers in each of the past two seasons). He is also 34 and entering the final year of his contract.
So it's worth noting, at least, that the Bears signed free agent center Taylor Boggs on Tuesday and are hosting California guard/center Brian Schwenke on a visit Wednesday. The Bears don't necessarily need to find a new center for 2013, but much like their short-term transition at middle linebacker from Brian Urlacher to D.J. Williams, it is time to construct a longer-term plan.
In this case, of course, the Bears have some flexibility. If they find in training camp that they have another starting-caliber center on the roster -- be it Boggs, a draft pick or another free agent -- Garza could conceivably move back to guard. The Bears signed free agent Matt Slauson presumably to replace the departed Lance Louis, but there is still one guard position without an obvious starter.
As we've discussed before, the best time to initiate a transition is before it's immediately necessary. It appears the Bears are looking to take that intermediary step now.
Roberto Garza enters the final season of a two-year extension signed in November of 2011. But he'll be 34 in March, leaving the Chicago Bears to ponder the possibility of life after the center, which played well enough in 2012 to be considered one of the most underrated performers on the club's wildly inconsistent offensive line.
The new coaching staff plans to clean up issues up front through a combination of tightening up technique and new additions. Garza certainly gives the Bears a strong foundation on which to build in 2013, but the team needs to acquire his eventual successor.
Based on the current free agent market, the best way to do that will be through the draft or by sifting through the current roster, which includes candidates such as Edwin Williams, Lance Louis and pending free agent Chris Spencer, who played center for most of his career before switching to guard with the Bears.
Garza graded negatively in five of the 16 games, and according to Pro Football Focus, gave up five sacks, one quarterback hit, and eight pressures in 1,071 snaps. Not exactly an all-Pro performance, but the Bears can win with that if they can get Garza's level of consistency from all five players on the offensive line.
With Senior Bowl practices scheduled to get underway this week in Mobile, Ala., let’s take a brief look at certain position groups the Chicago Bears might look to address in the upcoming NFL draft or free agency.
1. Offensive line: Let’s just lump the entire offensive line together since it likely requires a significant amount of work. Here is what we know -- Lance Louis has been at Halas Hall this offseason rehabbing the anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered last November against the Minnesota Vikings. If the Bears are satisfied that Louis is on track to make a full recovery, it stands to reason the club would either re-sign the versatile offensive lineman to a new deal or tag him. It’s unknown whether or not Louis will be ready to return at the beginning of next season, but even if he is forced to miss a small amount of time, the Bears will be much better off with a healthy Louis at right guard at some point in 2013. At his end of the year press conference Bears general manager Phil Emery spoke highly of veteran Jonathan Scott (scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent), who started five of the last six games at right tackle, and former undrafted rookie James Brown, who got his feet wet in the final three games at left guard. Emery also said 33-year old center Roberto Garza was “solid,” but the Bears need to figure out a long-term solution at the position, although Garza does keep himself in excellent physical shape. It’s clear the Bears need to attempt to upgrade one, if not both, of their offensive tackles, and probably find at least one guard. Granted, that’s a ton of work to one area of the team in a single offseason, but after neglecting to address the line last year on the heels of two bad first-round picks at tackle, the Bears find themselves in a tough situation. New Bears head coach Marc Trestman mentioned several times the need to protect quarterback Jay Cutler, which seems to indicate he too views the offensive line as a weak spot that needs to be fixed.
Perhaps that's why Bears quarterback Jay Cutler didn't hesitate when stating what needs to take place Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks in order for the offensive line to experience success.
"We've just got to be careful of what we ask those guys to do, make sure they're on the same page, (and) protect them," Cutler said. "You don't want to throw a lot of sevens (seven-step drops) and chuck the ball 40-50 times. They're not programmed for it. They're in new positions. Some guys haven't even played guard. We've just got to be smart with it."
- The Bears' intent on offense was pretty clear. They opened the game with an extra tackle, Jonathan Scott, and rookie Evan Rodriguez lined up at fullback, and desperately wanted to establish the run with quarterback Jay Cutler sidelined. I get that. But that approach provided no alternative when the 49ers took the early lead, and I remain stunned at how poorly the Bears adjusted. Forced into passing situations, they put tackles J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi in matchups they had already proved they couldn't win. It was absolutely criminal to stand by and let 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith beat them for 5.5 sacks. There is no doubt Smith is an elite pass-rusher, but the Bears needed to suck it up at some point and double-team him. Each sack came when the 49ers sent four or fewer rushers, meaning there was always someone available to help out if assigned. Instead, the Bears let Smith have a better game against them than any opponent in their history. In fact, Smith's sack total has been bested in a single game only four times in NFL history. Reggie White never had 5.5 sacks in a game. Neither did Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor, nor Mark Gastineau. Why? Because even on their best days, they faced more opposition than Smith did Monday night. I'm not sure any adjustment on Smith would have changed the outcome of the game, given how well the 49ers' offense played, but yikes. That was an eye-opening red flag from offensive coordinator Mike Tice, who was promoted in part because his background as an offensive line coach figured to minimize such jailbreaks. The Bears' scheme was as much, or more, to blame for Smith's night as was the poor play of Webb and Carimi.
- Jason Campbell's performance gets something of a curve given the pressure he faced. All told, he was sacked six times and hit on five other occasions. But in the bigger picture, I wouldn't say the Bears got their $3.5 million out of him Monday night. The point of making such a commitment on a backup quarterback was to give themselves a chance to win a tough game under adverse circumstances when the starter isn't available. Based on their initial game plan, the Bears didn't appear interested in putting the game in Campbell's hands. And when they had no choice, Campbell fell far short. He threw two interceptions, fumbled twice, and per his career history, rarely pushed the ball upfield. Of his 22 attempts, only six traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. He completed two of them for a total of 24 yards. Again, Campbell was in a tough spot Monday night. But the bottom line is the Bears are now 1-7 in the past eight games that starter Cutler has either missed or has left early. It appears Cutler is on track to return for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. He is scheduled to host his radio show on ESPN 1000 at 1 p.m. ET.
- Cutler has alluded on several occasions to his role in keeping receiver Brandon Marshall mentally engaged and emotionally in check, and it was instructive to see how quickly Marshall got chippy and eventually combative without Cutler on the sideline with him. Television cameras caught center Roberto Garza putting him in a bear hug to settle down an altercation with an unnamed Bears player late in the game. "I have to a do a better job when I am frustrated of not letting it show," Marshall said. In the end, Marshall only saw four passes thrown his way. He caught two of them, including a 13-yard touchdown. Six of Marshall's eight touchdowns this season have come when the score differential was at least 17 points.
What happened to the Bears' defense? Part of me wants to tip my cap to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It was fair to expect a conservative game plan and a few mistakes when facing a quarterback making his first start. We all thought Kaepernick would give the Bears a chance to add to their long list of takeaways this season. But Kaepernick was poised and stunningly accurate downfield against a Bears team that only blitzed on nine of his 23 attempts. Kaepernick gashed the Bears' standard pressure by completing 10 of 14 passes against it, including two that gained at least 30 yards. The 49ers also burned the Bears' defense by rushing for 94 yards between the tackles. Time will tell, but the Bears' defense -- like most -- was not nearly as good when it couldn't cause turnovers.
"They're very good, real good," Rachal said. "(Ndamukong) Suh, (Nick) Fairley, they're tough, they play to the whistle. (Kyle) Vanden Bosch outside, (Cliff) Avril outside, they're good. I wouldn't necessarily call it pressure. We have two really good coaches that prepare us really well. We know we have to execute."
In two games against the Lions in 2011, quarterback Jay Cutler suffered five sacks while throwing for only one touchdown. Detroit's defensive line has also proven adept at stuffing the run, considering that in three of the team's five games, the defense has given up fewer than 80 yards rushing.
Quarterback Jay Cutler, defensive end Julius Peppers, wide receivers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Devin Hester as well as fullback Evan Rodriguez and center Roberto Garza were among the players given the day off.
The Bears are scheduled to next return to the practice field on Monday in advance of their home game against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 22.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Chicago Bears balk at making excuses for
lack of production in the rushing attack through the first three games
of the preseason.
Joe Camporeale/US PresswireThe Bears' struggles to run the ball in the preseason are fairly typical.
The truth, though, is the Bears aren’t unlike other clubs around the league in that category because it takes time -- not to mention
countless reps at practice and in live action -- to sufficiently
synchronize all the moving parts involved with producing an explosive
“It happens every year. I don’t know how to explain it, but it takes time,” center Roberto Garza said.
So as much as the team wants big runs to start popping off ASAP, it knows there’s a chance the ground game won’t hit full stride for a while, given the symbiotic dynamics involved, which include precise timing, the club’s scheme in a given week, and recognition of how the opponent is defending.
The Bears averaged 3.5 yards per attempt Friday in a 20-17 victory over the New York Giants, with 24 of Matt Forte’s team-high 39 yards coming on one carry. Through three preseason games, the Bears rank 31st in rushing, with an average of 59 yards per game, but sit at 17th in total attempts (70).
So while exhibition numbers aren’t exactly telling, a look at the 2011 regular season reveals quite a bit. The Bears rushed for 88 yards or fewer in 2011 through the first three games. So it’s no coincidence the team started 1-2.
In Week 4, the Bears exploded for 224 yards on the ground, and followed that with five consecutive outings of 100 yards or more, before gaining 92 yards in Week 10 against the Chargers. The result: six victories over the next seven games, en route to a 7-3 record.
“We have to get the running game going,” quarterback Jay Cutler said Friday night. “We are not going to be a successful offense if we can’t
run the ball.”
Certainly, that’s true. But the yards likely won’t come immediately.
“We are still trying to figure that out,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “Some nights you have to give (the defense) credit. (The Giants)
have a good front four and front seven, and played excellent defense
today. You just have to stay committed to the run, which we will do.
Some days you won’t be able to rush for over 100 yards or 200 yards.”
That’s because so much goes into being able to do so, Forte said.
“It’s just a matter of recognizing defensive fronts. First of all, you’ve got to recognize what defense they’re in. Then, the second part is you’ve got to call (out) the right linebacker who we’re working to,” he said. “So sometimes, they may roll the safety down. Then there might be a dude free. So a lot of study has to go into it beforehand. Then (it’s about) recognizing the defenses.”
Offensive tackle Chris Williams pointed to a combination of offenses and defenses hiding their hands in the preseason to reveal as little as possible to future opponents, and the extensive substituting involved on both sides as contributors to the club’s recent history of getting off to slow starts with the rushing attack.
“I don’t know, that’s weird, you know?” Williams said. “I guess there’s a fine balance because you don’t want to show everything. You want to try to straight base it. You know guys are rolling through (in and out of the lineup). One guy will miss this, one guy will miss that. You might miss an adjustment, and it’s just hard to get that rhythm. Then we end up in second-and-10 a lot, and now you’re kind of behind the eight ball. So I don’t know why it takes so long. But when the season starts, we’ll be rolling in the run, I know it.”
Garza feels the same way, and actually laughed while nodding in agreement once the topic was brought up regarding slow starts with the ground games of not only the Bears, but other teams around the league.
“It’s something that takes time, and we’re working hard trying to get
that timing down with each other,” Garza said. “We expect it to be
there; to get Matt going, to get Michael Bush going. It’s a big part of our game plan and we need to keep working on it. We’ve got another week of training camp practices. Then we’ve got to get ready for Indy. It counts against Indy. So we’ve definitely got to be ready to get
that running game going.”
“We didn’t do a lot of things good,” he said. “So we have to learn from this. Obviously, this week of practice is important and the next game is (too).”
The Bears ran eight times in the first half Thursday night for 11 yards, gaining just 41 yards total as the offensive line allowed three sacks. Chicago took a vanilla approach offensively, which likely contributed to the club's ineffectiveness.
In addition, left tackle J'Marcus Webb and guards Edwin Williams and Lance Louis were flagged once each for false start penalties.
Right tackle Gabe Carimi mentioned the coaching staff wants to see more physicality from the offensive line.
Garza concurred, while expressing frustration about the line making the same mistakes Thursday night that plagued it during the 2011 season. In former offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme, the Bears gave up 49 sacks (fifth-most in the NFL) last season.
So it was expected the line would perform better in the new scheme of offensive coordinator Mike Tice, which emphasizes the running game and protecting the quarterback, in part, by eliminating five-man protections.
“When you’re physical, you give yourself a chance to win the game. We have to go out there and be physical and carry what we’re doing on the practice field to the game,” Garza said. “It’s still the first game of preseason. It’s still early in camp. Unfortunately, you think you cleaned (things) up and you think you’re past that, but obviously we’re not. We’re going to continue to work and continue to execute and work on our techniques.”
"I talked to Garza about it and asked if anyone was offended. He said no. He agreed with me," Cutler said Friday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "(I) didn't throw anyone under the bus, didn't name anybody specifically and say that they are a weak link. I just said until we get that front five we'll see what happens. And I want those guys to push each other. I want them to compete and try to get in that starting lineup. Once we get those front five down and get a few weeks under their belt we're going to be fine."
Cutler has been sacked 110 times in 41 regular-season games with the Bears. His 52 sacks in 2010 were a league high, and he was sacked 23 times last year in just 10 games before a thumb injury ended his season.
"The people in the Bears building are sometimes a little bit sensitive," Cutler said. "You always want to be pro-Bears and compliment your teammates and stuff but ... over a three-year career here (the offensive line is) definitely at the forefront of my mind ever year. Until we get those front five hammered down we're still kind of up in the air offensively even though we've got some really, really talented guys on the outside."
Waddle & Silvy talk with Bears QB Jay Cutler about his new ESPN 1000 show.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesChris Williams lined up at left tackle during Wednesday's workouts at Halas Hall.
“Right now, it’s hard to tell,” Cutler said. “The new CBA limits what we’re able to do until training camp. So (we) can’t really get a good look at those guys, and I don’t think it would be fair to any of those guys competing to say where they’re at until we get in camp, get the pads on to see and we see what we’ve got. I think all those guys except for ‘Garz’ have a chance to compete and at the end of the day, we’ll see what best five we have.”
The team definitely kicked off the search during Wednesday’s session, and as expected veteran Chris Williams -- a starter the last two years at left guard -- moved over to left tackle, where he took first-team reps along with J’Marcus Webb. It’s apparent there’s a position battle brewing at left tackle, and it’s likely the loser in the derby takes on the swing role.
Originally drafted in 2008 to be the left tackle of the future, Williams missed the last seven games of 2011 with a wrist injury, but expressed excitement about finally taking the field with the rest of his teammates.
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.
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesJ'Marcus Webb was penalized a team-high 15 times last season, but the Bears remain high on the left tackle, who enters his third season.
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
Jared Gaither, San Diego Chargers, unrestricted
Demetrius Bell, Buffalo Bills, unrestricted
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.
Attrition over the past two seasons led to discovery at the interior positions up front for the Chicago Bears, with former offensive line coach Mike Tice being forced to shuffle players to compensate for a major departure (Olin Kreutz) and various injuries.
Now the team’s offensive coordinator, Tice says those issues created surprising depth, which is “a good problem to have.”
The current roster features five players -- Chris Williams, Roberto Garza, Lance Louis, Edwin Williams and Chris Spencer -- that started multiple games in 2011. The problem, however, is just three of them will crack the starting lineup in 2012, with the other two falling back to reserve roles.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRoberto Garza proved to be a very capable replacement for Olin Kreutz at center.
Interestingly, all five can play multiple positions with Chris Spencer and Edwin Williams being capable of backing up Garza at center. Chris Williams and Louis, meanwhile, have started games outside at tackle. After spending most of his career at guard, Garza -- a 12th-year veteran -- is coming off his first season as Chicago’s starting center, where he replaced Kreutz, a franchise icon.
Garza continued to improve as the year progressed. With a full offseason to work with quarterback Jay Cutler, the team expects continued growth between the quarterback and center, who work together to identify threats on the defense before making adjustments in the protection.
As for the running game, the Bears are coming off a season in which they eclipsed the 2,000-yard rushing mark for just the second time in 20 years. On 177 runs behind the interior of the line in 2011, the Bears averaged 4 yards per attempt.
“For our offense to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, that’s saying a lot the way we were able to run the football,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “If you’re going to get off the bus running the football, you’ve got to be able to do it then.”
The interior of Chicago’s offensive line will play a major factor in determining whether the team’s good fortunes with the rushing attack continue under a new ground-oriented attack led by Tice.
THE CURRENT ROSTER
• Roberto Garza: Took over as the starting center when the team couldn’t work out a deal to bring back Kreutz, with no drop off in terms of production. In fact, Garza provided somewhat of an upgrade because he possesses Kreutz’s intelligence, but is stouter at the point of attack. The Bears rewarded Garza for a strong season with a two-year extension worth $6.55 million, including $2.6 million guaranteed. Garza came into training camp expecting to start at guard, and handled the move to center with very few complications. So a full offseason working at center should only lead to more improvement.
• Chris Spencer: Brought in during training camp as a potential starter at center, and ended up playing extensively at right guard in the season opener for an injured Louis. Spencer eventually started 14 games for the Bears at right guard. Initially, Tice was apprehensive about Spencer’s prospects because of his reputation for being somewhat soft. But Spencer quickly changed Tice’s impressions with a hard-nosed style and impressive athleticism. Spencer could easily emerge in the offseason as one of the top contenders for one of the starting guard spots.
• Chris Williams: One of the most physically gifted linemen on the team, Williams started the first nine games at left guard. But a fractured and dislocated wrist he suffered against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 13 landed Williams on the injured reserve. Williams excelled at blocking in space, and was by far the club’s best at pulling as the lead blocker for Matt Forte. A former first-round pick and starter at both tackle spots, Williams enters the final year of his original rookie contract. He needs to prove he’s worthy of a long-term commitment from the team.
• Lance Louis: Started off the season as the starting right guard, but an ankle sprained knocked him out of the majority of the first four games. Louis returned on Oct. 10 to start against the Detroit Lions, but eventually moved over to right tackle, replacing an ineffective Frank Omiyale, who at the time was filling in for injured rookie Gabe Carimi. Given the circumstances, Louis performed reasonably well at right tackle. But he’s eager to get back to his more natural guard position. Like Chris Williams, Louis is entering the final year of his contract.
• Edwin Williams: The Bears quietly signed Williams to a two-year extension near the end of last December, which serves as an indication of his worth to the team. Williams started the last seven games of 2011 at left guard, as the replacement to Chris Williams. Although Edwin Williams isn’t as athletic as Chris Williams, he’s more powerful and a better pass-protector, according to the staff. Also capable of playing center, Edwin Williams might wind up a backup in 2012 because of the high number of capable players at the interior positions.
• Ricky Henry: Signed to the active roster on Nov. 17, Henry played in two games, making his debut on Dec. 18 against the Seattle Seahawks. The club acquired Henry as an undrafted free agent for training camp. Although he’s talented, Henry will likely end up a victim of the numbers game at training camp.
• Reggie Stephens: Spent most of 2011 on the practice squad, after signing with the team on Nov. 8.Bears free agents: None
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
WHY BEARS MIGHT STAND PAT
The team isn’t likely to make moves to upgrade the interior of the offensive line through free agency. But there’s a good chance the Bears add to the roster through the draft through late-round picks or undrafted rookies. It’s important to note that Tice has a track record for uncovering gems along the offensive line; especially undrafted free agents
"We have to go out there and run the ball and protect our quarterback," Garza said Wednesday. "We need to stick to the same game plan that's won us football games here in the past."
The recipe for success, when there's been success in the first 10 games, has been a heavy dose of Matt Forte and timely plays in the passing game. The Bears enter Sunday's game in Oakland ranked No. 22 in passing offense (216), compared to No. 14 in rushing offense (116.9), which means Matt Forte should expect a heavy work load this weekend against the Raiders, one of the league's poorest rushing defenses.
Hanie will no doubt have to keep the defense honest, but the game will likely be won in the trenches.
"Jay was playing really good football for us, it's a shame it happened, but unfortunately that's the NFL," Garza said. "But we've had to overcome a lot of injuries already. We've seen what Caleb can do. We know he's a talented player and he can step in and fill that role.'
"But it's definitely up to all of us to go out there and do our jobs. He's a competitor, We saw how competitive he was in that [NFC Championship] game. He brings a lot of energy to the huddle. Now it's our job to keep up with him."