by Ben Muth
This week I decided to focus on the Bears offensive line. The reason is simple: They've been ripped for not selecting an offensive lineman in the draft this year, and I wanted to see if the line was that big of a problem. Anyone who has watched the Bears play the past few years would certainly think so, but as we all know, watching games on TV can often be misleading. So, I wanted to do a closer examination and judge for myself. After watching their Week 17 game against the Vikings I can safely say that everyone was right. The Bears have a huge problem up front.
Let’s start with J'Marcus Webb. Webb, like most NFL tackles, was facing an uphill battle against Jared Allen. It was clear from the start that Allen was simply gunning for sacks and was willing to do anything to get them. That probably sounds like what he does every game, and it is to a certain extent. However, in more consequential games, even sack masters like Allen have to keep some semblance of a rush lane or contain. When it’s the last week of the year and you’re in shouting distance of the single-season sack record, you get the green light to do whatever you want. Between that and the fact that Allen is a far superior player, Webb was lucky he didn’t give up five sacks.
The biggest issue Webb had is that he was just awful with his hands. His punch is slow and non-violent. There were multiple times where Allen just chopped the left tackle’s hands and dipped around the corner like he was working against a popup dummy. Even when Webb didn’t get his hands knocked down, he never jolted Allen off his path with a solid punch. He would just grab Allen and try to hold on for dear life.
In Webb’s defense, he didn’t get a lot of help. When they slid to him, Edwin Williams seemed far too concerned with helping the center. Especially considering the best pass rusher in the game was running amok four feet away from him. When the Bears tried to chip it was with Kahlil Bell, who is possibly the worst chip blocker I have ever seen on film. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter, when Lovie Smith realized that keeping a tight end over Allen might be a good idea, that Webb got any real help.
Opposite of Webb was Lance Louis, who only played well when compared to Webb. Louis is a guard who was forced outside due to injury, and he played like it. He simply doesn’t move or redirect well enough to pass block on the edge. With Gabe Carimi back in the lineup next season, the plan is to move Louis inside to right guard. I could see that working, as Louis is certainly strong enough to play inside. The biggest question will be his pad level, as he played high at times outside this year.
On the interior, Roberto Garza’s inability to pull was the first thing that stood out to me. The Bears ran a pin-and-pull play a couple of times. In a pin-and-pull, the tackle and tight end would block down while the playside guard and center would pull, with the guard kicking out and the center leading up. I’ve decided not to draw this play up in the same spirit as the general sports media policy of not showing fans who run on the field. Showing this play would only encourage others to run it. I think the Bears ran it three times, and Garza blocked his guy zero of those times. I’m not sure if this a line call where Garza decides to pull himself based on how the defense is lined up (Kevin Mawae was notorious for calling his own number), or if the play is always designed for him to pull. Whatever the case, I hope I never see it again.
As for the guards, it’s safe to say they probably played the best of any of the Chicago linemen. Chris Spencer got knocked around a little early, but seemed to adjust as the game went on. One thing he’s really good at is hand replacement. He’s not the most accurate when he initially punches in pass protection, but he does a nice job of re-positioning his hands inside for leverage. He also probably moves the best laterally of any of the Bears’ linemen.
Williams also played fine. He’s probably Chicago’s best run blocker (neck-and-neck with Louis) and does a nice job of running his feet after contact. Williams does a nice job sitting down on bull rushes. The biggest negative he has is definitely the ability to redirect on an inside move. There were a couple times where guys got inside him and were really able to press the pocket as a result.
As bad as Chicago’s line played at the end of the season, there is some cause for optimism up front. Carimi will come back next year and could be a big upgrade at tackle, Louis can move inside where he belongs, and perhaps best of all, Mike Martz is gone. The Tsar of the five-man protection/seven-step drop combo has been replaced by the (presumably) protection-friendly Mike Tice. Plus, despite all the line’s troubles against Minnesota, they still won. If this team improves at all up front, they could be dangerous next year.
That does it for this week. After a couple of weeks of watching less than stellar play, I’d really like to get back to writing about a quality unit next week. The Saints and Texans spoiled me, I suppose. If you think your team had a solid offensive line, recommend them below (or on Twitter) and I’ll write about them next week.