Tough to buy the company line
As many feared, the Bears' maligned O-line appears to be picking up where it left off
CHICAGO -- The early word from Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice in Bourbonnais was that despite the lack of work due to the lockout, the loss of their veteran center, the fact that four of five guys, including a rookie, were playing new positions and that they were coming off a 56-sack season, things were much better this year. Really.
Tice talked about the fact that at least he knew who he wanted at each position, that the Bears' line was finally developing continuity, that it was "light-years" ahead of where it was at this time last year.
"This is not a competition," Tice said a week ago. "We have five guys in there and they are starters."
He did add one caveat, however.
"If they falter in games," he said, "then we'll have to create some type of competition and movement."
Based on Buffalo's four sacks for minus-18 yards against the Bears' starting offensive line in the first half of their first preseason game Saturday night at Soldier Field, and five more against the reserves in the second half, some type of something needs to happen. Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, who had two of the first-quarter sacks, may have set an all-time NFL record had he been allowed to stay in. That is, if his chest-beating and mouth-frothing was any indication.
There were some noticeable bright spots for the Bears in their first live action against real opponents. Marion Barber, who looked as if he might hurt someone on the Bears' defense in his first two weeks of camp, proved every bit as punishing as his new team had hoped Saturday, churning for 45 yards on seven carries while jawing with defenders and once actually rallying a sparse Soldier Field crowd as he led the Bears on their only touchdown drive of the day.
"He's a tough runner," Jay Cutler said of Barber. "We brought him in just for that reason. He brings a new dimension to that backfield."
Barber should come in handy in short-yardage situations, despite Matt Forte's belief that he is also capable, which will likely leave Chester Taylor as the odd man out. That's fine. Even Taylor likely is OK with it, having received $7 million from the Bears last season and figuring to be in some demand. And Kahlil Bell, who, unlike Taylor, can play special teams, looked solid in the second half with 73 yards rushing on 13 carries along with two catches for 46 yards from third-string quarterback Nathan Enderle.
As predicted, the Bears kept Forte all but packed in cotton as he was in the game for just two plays, catching a 1-yard shovel pass from Cutler on a field that at least looked better than it did Aug. 5, when the team's Family Fest was canceled for excessive seamage.
Cutler played one series and scrambled for 10 yards without getting stomped, the open field a considerably safer place than the pocket.
"There was too much pressure on the quarterback," coach Lovie Smith said. "We have to tighten that up a little bit. But offensively, we accomplished what we wanted to."
Preseason game, preseason quotes.
Johnny Knox had a 70-yard kickoff return and Earl Bennett returned a punt for 33. And defensively, tackle Amobi Okoye looked considerably better than the last guy to wear No. 91 for the Bears, registering two sacks while Henry Melton had some moments inside as well.
To be fair, this was the first game -- which the Bears won 10-3, incidentally -- after much less work than anyone is accustomed to. Even Robbie Gould missed a 33-yard field goal wide left. But the offensive line was, is and will likely continue to be a concern.
Center Roberto Garza is the least of their problems as he handled every snap and is still a better center as a guard than anyone else on the team is as a guard or a center. Gabe Carimi looked more comfortable than any rookie has a right to be. The run-blocking was very good at times. But left tackle is still scary as J'Marcus Webb, with one holding call that still resulted in a sack for a 6-yard loss, is still not ready to protect your franchise quarterback's blind side.
"Thank God we don't play Atlanta for a while," Smith admitted of their first regular-season opponent, still four weeks away.
You try to remember that last year at this time, you thought they were a 6-10 team and they ended up 11-5. But you also remember that as predicted by anyone with the gift of sight, the offensive line was a serious problem and threatened to derail the team on more than one occasion.
Surely, there are agents of offensive lineman looking longingly at the Bears as a destination for their clients. But just as surely, their clients are not going to be the Bears' solution at this point.
"They will be fine," Cutler said of his line. "It took them a little bit to get settled down. Some of these young guys are still jelling a little bit. And Roberto is doing a great job in the middle. There are some bright spots out there."
You want to believe him. Really, you do. But it's not easy.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.