A key to the 2nd half? Put it on the line
By Mark Potash email@example.com
You can build an NFL offensive line out of almost anything — low-round draft picks, undrafted free agents, players from unknown, hyphenated colleges, former Pro Bowlers, future Pro Bowlers, disappointing No. 1 picks, nondescript veterans. If they can work together, you’ve got a chance.
But not usually seven weeks into the season. If you haven’t found the right combination by then, it’s usually too late. Eight of the 10 teams in the last five Super Bowls started the same offensive line in the last game as in the first.
The Bears, on the other hand, were still mixing and matching into their bye week, with first-year offensive line coach Mike Tice patching holes and experimenting through seven games. They started three different right tackles by Week 5. They were on their third starting right guard by Week 8. When Roberto Garza moved back to right guard, in place of Edwin Williams, against the Bills on Nov. 7, the Bears had changed four of the five offensive line starters from their opening-day lineup.
And somehow, it worked. By putting Frank Omiyale in place of Chris Williams at left tackle, Williams in place of Garza at left guard, Garza in place of Lance Louis at right guard and rookie J’Marcus Webb in place of Omiyale at right tackle, the Bears found a combination that helped them go 7-2 after the bye week.
They allowed 19 sacks in the first eight games since the bye week (before allowing six against the Packers in Week 17). They allowed 30 in the first seven games of the season. Matt Forte is averaging 5.3 yards per carry (87 carries, 502 yards, two touchdowns) in his last six games after averaging 3.8 in his first 10.
They’re not great. But they’ve got something going for them.
‘‘You know what we have? We have the best offensive line coach in the league, period,’’ said Olin Kreutz, a 13-year veteran who was a third-round pick by the Bears in 1998. ‘‘And we have a bunch of guys who don’t hide from the criticism and don’t point fingers. We just stick together.
‘‘We improve. We take criticism in the room from each other. We just try to all play together and raise our level together, and hopefully get to a point where we’re a Super Bowl line, because that’s where we want to get to.’’
But it wouldn’t have happened without Tice making personnel moves the Bears have been loathe to make in the past — Omiyale from right tackle to left tackle when Williams suffered a hamstring injury against the Cowboys in Week 2; Webb for Kevin Shaffer against the Panthers in Week 5; Williams to left guard against the Seahawks in Week 6 when Garza had arthroscopic knee surgery, and finally Garza to right guard in place of Edwin Williams against the Bills after missing three games.
‘‘All the credit goes to coach Tice,’’ Kreutz said. ‘‘First of all, having the confidence enough to make the changes. Seeing the changes that needed to be made and making them. We have a bunch of guys playing positions they didn’t play in the offseason, so they were learning on the run.’’
‘‘The coaches did a great job of getting the guys on the field that needed to be on the field, and we started coming around,’’ Garza said. ‘‘Stuff started clicking that Redskins game, and the offensive line started playing a lot better. We started getting the job done [by] protecting the quarterback and opening up running lanes. Now, everything has fallen into place for us.’’
The divisional playoff game Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks will be an opportunity for the line to show how far it has come. Jay Cutler was sacked six times, and Forte gained 11 yards on eight carries in a 23-20 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 17 at Soldier Field.
‘‘Our offensive line play was horrible, so we’d like to do better than we played in that game,’’ Kreutz said. ‘‘They did a great job of confusing us. That starts with me, getting everybody on the right guy. I’d like to play better with my identifications.’’
Though the Bears struggled with protections against the Packers in Week 17, they’re confident they will be able to continue their overall progress since the bye week on Sunday.
‘‘We feel confident in what we’ve done,’’ Garza said. ‘‘But we’re still getting better every week, and that’s what we’ve got to build on.’’
‘‘You could tell we were young in our offense,’’ Kreutz said when asked what the tape of the first Bears-Seahawks game showed. ‘‘You could tell by watching that a lot of guys were unsure of what they had and what they had to do. Now, we’re a little farther along in our offense.”