Against the Lions on Sunday, the Chicago Bears will be starting the same five offensive linemen for the fourth straight week. Rookie T Gabe Carimi is not expected to play due to a lingering knee injury, which means the starting group will once again be LT J'Marcus Webb, LG Chris Williams, C Roberto Garza, RG Chris Spencer and RT Lance Louis.
In their three starts together, this unit has allowed just three total sacks on Jay Cutler. In addition, they have been opening numerous holes in the run game. The team is averaging 153.3 yards on the ground the past three games.
One can argue that the current front five are playing at an elite level not witnessed in Chicago since 2006. Yet offensive line coach Mike Tice doesn't want that to go to his player's heads.
"You always have that fear as a coach that after a good game, and [the media] are all kissing their butts right now, they start thinking they're good," Tice said. "Well they're not good. They had a solid game but they've got a long way to go."
T Lance Louis
Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
He said that even in their dominant performance over the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday, the tape showed at least 10 things each player did poorly in the game.
"They're getting better," said Tice. "They have certainly not arrived."
At the midpoint of the season, Tice said he feels C+ is a fair grade for this unit. But if they continue to play at a high level, that grade will surely climb.
After struggling through the first five weeks of the season, most fans and analysts felt the front five would hold the offense back throughout the 2011 campaign. Yet just like last year, Tice worked his magic and appears to have players approaching their peak.
"You have to have a vision of where guys can get to," Tice said. "Fortunately for me, I've been doing it for 30 years in the league and I've seen good players. So I think I know what good players look like. Sometimes we don't want to believe that and we want to have players play good right now. But the problem is they can't play good right now. They have to develop."
With Carimi out since Week 2, Louis has stepped in to fill the void at right tackle. A tight end in college, Louis played guard exclusively throughout his young NFL career. Yet he's made a seamless transition to the right edge. He's struggled at times, but he's played as well as anyone could have expected given his unfamiliarity with the position.
"[Louis has] done a remarkable job for not being there before in three weeks. He's made a terrific difference for us," coordinator Mike Martz said. "A little bit like last year, when that group settles in and they're playing with the same guys every week, of course they're going to get better every week. And that's what they've done. Since I've been here, that was as good a game as a group that we've played up front. They did just a remarkable job."
Yet even though they are making progress, there is always the possibility of a regression, something Tice isn't willing to allow.
"My goal is to each week give them something to get better at," said Tice. "Hopefully the things they got better at two to three weeks previous, they don't fall off on them. That's the problem. The problem is these guys are young and they do get better at something but then something that you thought was better shows up again. So it's a continual work in progress."
The Lions boast the sixth-best pass defense in the league and are fourth in the NFL in total sacks. Detroit sacked Cutler three times in the first meeting between the two teams and disrupted the flow of Chicago's passing attack. If the offensive line can curtail the pressure this Sunday, the Bears have a great shot at picking up the team's fourth win in a row.
Martz Still Learning
For any NFL offensive coordinator, adjusting a game plan to fit the team's personnel strengths is a week-by-week, and even day-by-day, process. The argument from many critics has been coordinator Mike Martz's inability to mold his strategies around his players, instead forcing them into a rigid system. Yet lately, Martz has been making all the right calls.
"That's the fun of coaching, really," said Martz. "You find out the personality of your group and what you're doing well, take advantage of it, build on it, fix what you can, and then identify the things that you're not very good at. And if you can't fix it and move on, then you have to change. And if you can't change, you're going to lose."
One adjustment has been getting Cutler out of the pocket on rollouts and bootlegs, where he's had a lot of success.
"That's been a strength of Jay's his whole career," said Martz, "his ability impromptu or when things break down a little bit, he's able to scramble or move around in the pocket and either take off with the ball and go with it – he's got excellent speed – and then of course moving around and throwing the ball on the move, he's always been very good at that. We've done a couple of things to get him on the perimeter to take advantage of that, too."
Bennett a Rare Breed
Bears receiver Earl Bennett missed five weeks with a bruised chest this year but came back with a vengeance in his return to action Monday night. He led all Chicago receivers with 5 catches for 95 yards and 1 touchdown.
LB Lance Briggs
When using the most-basic labels, Bennett is a possession receiver. Yet his contributions to the offense go much farther than that.
"I think he's unique," said Martz. "You can't consider him a slot receiver because he's got too much speed, and he can line up outside and start for us outside, as well. He can do anything. That's the beauty of it. He's comfortable inside or outside. He does so many things for us. It's good to have him back."
Cutler and Bennett played together at Vanderbilt and have an on-field rapport that keeps both players on the same page nearly every play.
"Having Earl back, it was good to see him out there and the way he responded and the way he played," Cutler said. "Hopefully we can keep getting him the ball and finding ways to get him open."
Chicago's wideout position is sketchy at best. The leading pass catcher from the wide receiver position is Devin Hester, who has 22 grabs, or 19 less than team leader Matt Forte. Roy Williams, the team's big free-agent acquisition this offseason, has caught just 16 balls, three less than undrafted rookie Dane Sanzenbacher. At times this year, the receivers have been so awful that Chicago's only option in the passing game has been dumpoffs to Forte.
Cutler said that he's still working with the other receivers to build chemistry.
"It takes time," he said. "I've been with Earl for a long time. I've thrown a lot of balls to him. I'm getting there with a lot of those guys. We're getting there but it doesn't happen overnight though."
For his part, Bennett is happy as long as the team is winning.
"My biggest thing since I've been here is just to stay focused," Bennett said. "Just come out and do my job. No matter if I have one catch or I have 20, as long as we're winning, I'm fine."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.