Last season, the Chicago Bears' offense failed to live up to expectations. In the second year under former coordinator Mike Martz, the group finished 24th in the league in total yards per game (314.1), 26th in pass yards per game (188.2), 28th in first downs per contest (16.9), 17th in points per game (22.1) and 27th in third down efficiency (32.5 percent).
Throughout 2011, Chicago's defense held firm, yet it was the late-season collapse of the offense that led to the club falling out of the playoffs, despite a 7-3 start.
Martz was subsequently released the day after the season ended, ushering in the Mike Tice era. After having spent two years as the club's offensive line coach, Tice will take over as offensive coordinator for the first time in his coaching career.
OC Mike Tice
It was assumed that, with Tice now in charge, the team would focus on upgrading the offensive line this offseason. No team in the NFL has allowed more sacks over the last two seasons than the Bears. Last year, the club finished 31st in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt (.094).
In the eyes of most observers, new pieces up front are necessary if quarterback Jay Cutler is ever going to receive the protection he needs. Yet the Bears added just Chilo Rachal, who was benched by the 49ers last season, in veteran free agency and completely ignored the front five in this year's draft.
GM Phil Emery made a number of moves to strengthen the offensive skill positions, as well as the defensive secondary and special teams units, yet he put forth no effort to revamp an offensive line that has struggled the last two years.
Obviously, the club is hoping the return of its two best linemen from injury will be enough to bring this group back into the realm of respectability. Let's break down the offensive linemen on the current 90-man roster heading into Bears training camp.
The Bears got just six quarters out of last year's first rounder Gabe Carimi before a dislocated knee ended his season in Week 2. Up to that point, Carimi was outplaying the rest of his linemates. He was outstanding as a run blocker and showed very well in pass protection as well.
He has had three surgeries on the knee since the initial injury, which is worrisome. Yet he started working out with the team during OTAs and said he's healthy and ready to go for 2012.
With Carimi, it's all about his health. If he can stay on the field, he'll be a quality player on the right side, with Pro Bowl potential.
On the left side, there will be a 50/50 competition between Webb and Williams. Tice has said that the two will split reps down the middle until one player stands out.
T Chris Williams
Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
Based on Webb's performance last season, which was spotty to say the least, it's hard to imagine Williams – who was drafted in 2008 to play left tackle – losing this competition. Expect him to emerge as the starter midway through the preseason. That would leave Webb as the club's primary swing tackle – a perfect place for the third-year player, as he already has experience starting on both sides.
At center, Roberto Garza is firmly entrenched. The 11-year veteran is the leader of this group and makes all the calls up front. Last year, in his first season at center, Garza was named a Pro Bowl alternate, which earned him a two-year contract extension. Barring injury, he will anchor the offensive line in 2012.
Things are not as established at the guard positions. Spencer, a career center before signing with the club last year, has never played left guard in his career. On the other side, Louis is back where he started 2011 – before being thrown into the fire at right tackle after Carimi's injury. He struggled on the edge, which Tice said sapped him of his confidence.
Louis and Spencer are not maulers. Both rely more on quickness and technique in place of pure power. They can get the job done but neither will be mistaken for a Pro Bowl player anytime soon. Which is why Rachal is will get an opportunity to challenge for a starting guard spot.
With San Francisco, Rachal played only right guard, so it was interesting to see him lined up on the left side during minicamp. It appears Tice wants Rachal to be comfortable on both sides, with the hope that, if he doesn't earn a starting job, he'll be able to serve as the club's primary swing guard.
The Bears typically keep eight linemen, leaving open one more roster spot. Based on his performance in place of Chris Williams at left guard last season, that final spot will likely go to Edwin Williams. Williams can play center, where he played in college, or guard. He was easily the best pass protector of all Chicago's interior offensive linemen last year. His flexibility and pass blocking ability should land him the final roster spot.
He'll be challenged by James Brown, an undrafted free agent that was considered by many as the best lineman not selected in this year's draft. Brown is currently rotating with A.J. Greene, another UDFA, at right tackle but also spent time at guard during OTAs. Brown has guard size with tackle experience.
G/C Edwin Williams
It's unlikely Pieschel, Hendrickson, Greene, Brandon or Henry will make the Bears' 53-man roster this season. Each is basically a camp body that will need to blow the coaches away over the next six weeks if he's to earn a full-time job.
The Bears have a ton of flexibility up front. Nearly every offensive linemen on the team has experience at multiple positions: Garza, C/G; Louis, G/T; Webb, RT/LT; C. Williams LT/RT; Spencer C/G; E. Williams G/C.
This will give Tice numerous options when it comes to building this offensive line. Expect him to mix and match these players throughout camp until he finds a formula that fits. Ideally, he'll finalize a starting front five early in camp, to give the group time to build chemistry.
Despite the poor numbers mentioned earlier in this piece, 2011 wasn't all bad for Chicago's offense. The Bears finished ninth overall in rushing yards per game (125.9), rushing for more than 2,000 yards as a team (2,015) for the first time in 20 seasons – accomplished with a patchwork offensive line missing its two best players (Carimi and C. Williams) and backup running backs in the backfield.
Credit that success on the ground to Tice, who should be able to once again build a front five that, despite its lack of top-tier talent, will be serviceable in 2012.
Starters: LT C. Williams, LG Spencer, C Garza, RG Rachal, RT Carimi
Backups: T Webb, G/T Louis, C/G E. Williams
Practice squad: G/T Brown, T A.J. Greene
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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.