Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
21 Aug 2014
by Ben Muth
Welcome to the first preseason Word of Muth of 2014. After a long offseason I'm excited to show up refreshed and out of game shape. I plan on using these next couple of weeks/columns to play myself into regular season mode, just like reporters of yesteryear used to before OTAs and Twitter existed.
In case you're new to the column or just need a refresher, each year I choose three teams to cover, rotating which team I'll write about in a given week. And by "team," of course, I mean just their offensive line with the occasional barb at a wide receiver or tight end who can't block. This year, the three teams I'm focusing on are the Bears, the Rams, and the Ravens. Over the next couple of weeks we're going to look at what each team has up front and what I generally think about each going into the season.
We'll start with Chicago. The 2013 Bears offensive line is most notable for not being the Bears' 2009-2012 offensive line. As a unit, I think the Bears' line was just about league average last year, but I'm not sure if any offensive line was more beloved by their own fan base. After years of offensive line play that fluctuated between looking bad and looking like the defense had correctly guessed their play in Tecmo Super Bowl, looking decent was fantastic.
The Bears improved so much over the course of the year because they got rid of just about everyone up front. Chicago had four starters in 2013 that weren't on the roster in 2012 (two free agents, two rookies). The new coaching staff made it clear that what had happened up front in Chicago for years wasn't going to get it done, and spent their first offseason overhauling everything about the front five.
The Bears' first move was to splurge in free agency for a Pro Bowl left tackle. A lot of people, including me, have pointed out that Jermon Bushrod has never really been an elite left tackle; he just benefited from playing next to Carl Nicks and in front of Drew Brees. As a result, some said the Bears spent too much for Bushrod. That may be true, but in the rush to criticize Bushrod for being a weak Pro Bowl selection (and really to just criticize the Pro Bowl in general), it's easy to forget that he is a pretty valuable player.
A lot of Bushrod's value comes from being a heady player who just stays on the field. He hasn't missed a start in four years, and has missed just a single game over the past five seasons. When he's out there, he's good enough that you don't have alter your scheme to send too much help his way, and he's intelligent enough to adjust his game depending on the protection scheme to give himself the best chance of success. He cheats when he has help, and he knows when he has to buckle down and take someone one-on-one. He will have some off days against some of the league's elite (the Rams game last year got away from him), but he'll more than hold his own against plenty of defensive ends. Considering what the Bears have trotted out recently, 16 games of solid B to B- play from the left tackle had to be a revelation.
Just inside of Bushrod was another free agent acquisition, left guard Matt Slauson. From the few games I watched, I thought Slauson was probably their best lineman last year. He wasn't as physically overpowering as Kyle Long was at times, but he was more consistent and still generated plenty of movement overall in the running game. I think Slauson is a guy whose reputation really benefitted from moving from the Jets offense to the Bears offense.
Before last year, I think most people, including myself, saw Slauson as a solid NFL guard who could be replaced with limited production drop-off with a cheaper alternative. What people fail to take into account is how much tougher it is to play guard (or anywhere on the line) when teams don't respect your passing game.
There's so much the defense does that makes life miserable for interior O-linemen when they can write off your receivers, and your passing game in general, as non-entities. Teams are adding safeties to the box, which bumps the linebacker you were supposed to climb to 3 yards further away. Plus defenses are staying in base personnel, meaning instead of seeing a nickel back when you lead around on a counter, you're greeted by a two-down linebacker with no neck. It's a grind out there.
Slauson went from a Tony Sparano-designed offense with zero weapons led by Mark Sanchez to a Marc Trestman-designed offense featuring Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Forte led by Jay Cutler. People seem to acknowledge how surrounding talent and scheme affects quarterbacks (and oddly wide receivers to a certain degree), but playing with good players in a smart scheme makes everyone's job easier and I think Matt Slauson might have been the best example in the NFL of that last year. I don't think Slauson became that much better of a player five years into his career, I think his situation improved.
At center, Roberto Garza is the elder statesman of the unit. He's been in Chicago since 2005 and in the NFL since 2001. Garza has been a durable player and was probably the Bears' best offensive lineman through many of the bad old years. He's starting to show some of his age and I think many thought he would have retired after last year. This offseason the Bears brought in Brian De La Puente in free agency and I think there was a real chance they were going to compete for the center spot before de la Puente's preseason injury. I imagine Garza is now a lock for the starting spot.
At right guard, the Bears have last year's first-round pick, Kyle Long. Long really stood out as one of the bright spots for the class of 2013, a group of first-round rookie offensive linemen that was generally either disappointing or injured. The Pro Bowl selection was probably undeserved, but Long showed all of his talent at different times last year and gave Bears fans plenty to be excited about.
The Oregon product plays with fantastic power and has the ability to absolutely bully guys at the line of scrimmage. He's also a devastating puller who can really embarrass guys out there. In the second preseason game I saw him run right through a defensive tackle on a trap play (the defender slipped a little too, but it still looked impressive as hell). He's far from a finished project and there's still plenty to improve on (mainly that he plays too high and his base is too narrow), but Long had a very solid rookie campaign. He's the guy I'm most excited about watching this year.
The other rookie starter up front for Chicago was Jordan Mills. Mills was a fifth-round draft pick last year who won the starting right tackle job in camp. Anytime a late-round pick can crack the starting lineup out of camp and stay there all year, you have to tip your cap to him. That being said, Mills was the clear weak link of the O-line and probably of the entire offense. He looked heavy-footed at times in pass protection and wasn't good enough with his hands to make up for it. He really struggled blocking speed off the edge in the games I saw. Luckily, he plays for an intelligent coaching staff that realized you can help out young players that are struggling with smart game planning.
The Bears used six offensive linemen on 16 percent of plays last year. No other team used an extra lineman on even 10 percent of plays. (This tidbit was found in Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 which is on sale now and incredible.) Even more interesting than the heavy usage of the extra biggin, the Bears typically passed from this personnel grouping. Rather than let Mills get beat up on a weekly basis, tank the offense, and then talk about how "we have to play better up front" in the press conference, Trestman and his staff decided to sub in an extra tackle when they could (almost always Eben Britton) and lighten the rookie's load a bit. As a result, the Bears offense was able to function at a high level.
I'm not sure if Mills is an NFL starter in the long term (I don't think you want to have to play a sixth offensive lineman that much in the passing game), but by protecting him some last year, Chicago gave him a chance to play without turning a city (or, more importantly, the locker room) against him.
The big question with this unit is how much will they improve in year two together. Bears fans are understandably optimistic about what they can do as an offense if the offensive line takes a step forward. There are a lot of signs that point in that direction too.
They had two rookie starters who should improve in their second season. Last year, four out of the five guys had never met each other before the first session of OTAs. We know how important cohesion and continuity can be for O-lines and the Bears will have that this year. On top of that, none of them had played in Marc Trestman's offense before, just getting familiar with the playbook and being to dig deeper should help everyone on the offense, not just the line.
Of course, one thing we haven't talked about yet is injury luck. Last year the Bears had all five starters up front start every game. That seems highly unlikely to repeat, and Jordan Mills has already missed both preseason games due to an offseason surgery. It will be interesting to see how the line performs if their depth is really tested this year. Hopefully it doesn't come to that, but no matter what, I'm looking forward to watching these guys play this year.
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