In regard to pass protection, the offensive line of the Chicago Bears is on a roll. Over the past two games, the club has allowed just two sacks of quarterback Jay Cutler. When you consider how awful the protection has been all season – the Bears allowed 17 sacks from Weeks 7-11 – that is quite an accomplishment.
Not coincidentally, the offensive line the past two weeks has featured three new pieces. Gabe Carimi, who started the club's first 10 games at right tackle this year, has been moved inside to right guard, with Jonathan Scott taking over on the right edge. At left guard, Edwin Williams has taken over for Chris Spencer, who is out with an ankle injury.
Along with left tackle J'Marcus Webb and center Roberto Garza, the current starting five has been, dare I say it, very good at keeping Cutler upright.
"They're playing better," Cutler said today. "I don't know if it's because I'm yelling at them more or what's happening, but guys are playing well."
G Gabe Carimi
The move to right guard seems to have rejuvenated Carimi. Pro Football Focus ranked Carimi as the best pass blocker on the team last week against the Seattle Seahawks, and the best run blocker the week before against the Minnesota Vikings. It's a small sample size but it appears that, by moving Carimi inside and getting him off an island out wide, opposing defenses haven't been able to expose his lack of lateral agility, which plagued him at tackle.
Williams has shown this year what he proved last year: he's the best pass-blocking guard on the roster. He balance and awareness in protection is unmatched on this roster. The upgrades at guard have helped create clean pockets for Cutler that past two weeks.
"I feel the past two weeks the offensive line has done an amazing job," said Brandon Marshall.
Marshall has been the beneficiary of the improved protection, with Cutler finding him 22 times for 257 yards the past two games combined.
"I think Jay is playing the position better than anyone right now, when you see how he's spinning it, and the situations he's getting us in and getting us out of," Marshall said. "I think a lot of that is due to him being comfortable with the guys up front. Over the past two weeks, they've really been getting after it and it's promising."
Another reason for the reduction in sacks has been the play calling, which has utilized more three-step drops, exploiting the short and intermediate routes instead of putting Cutler in harm's way with seven-step drops.
Jared Allen, defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings who was held without a sack two weeks ago, said Chicago's change to a quick passing attack is the main reason he was shutout.
"The intermediate passing game, I mean, it's tough," Allen said during his conference call with the Chicago media this afternoon. "We went back and put a clock on it. I think there was only two or three times the whole game he held the ball more than about two and a half seconds. That intermediate passing game was clutch for them. And then they did some things boot-legging and max protecting from different looks, chipping in and out with the tight ends and the running backs, and that makes it tough."
The improved play design and execution for Chicago's passing attack is a great sign for a unit that has ranked at or near the bottom of the league all season in overall passing – the Bears currently rank 31st. Better protection and better coaching from first-time coordinator Mike Tice, who may finally be figuring out how develop successful game plans, can only help the offense going forward.
"We're getting rid of the ball quickly," said Cutler. "I think we have good game plans going into it. Mike [Tice] has done a great job of mixing up and spinning the play calling and keeping teams off-balance."
QB Jay Cutler
Cutler's ability to scramble away from pressure and extend plays with his feet has also helped the front five.
"[Cutler] has a lot to do with it, his mobility and what he does in the pocket," Marshall said. "There's a lot of quarterbacks that are making plays with their feet and just moving in the pocket. Jay is one of the best at doing that. You just watch the games, he's creating a lot of opportunities down the field for us."
Yet in exchange for better protection, the run game has suffered. Here are the rushing average totals from Weeks 7-10 this season:
Week 7 vs. Detroit: 5.3 ypc
Week 8 vs. Carolina: 4.2 ypc
Week 9 vs. Tennessee: 4.4 ypc
Week 10 vs. Houston: 5.0 ypc
Since the changes to the offensive line, here are the rushing averages the past two games:
Week 12 vs. Minnesota: 2.9 ypc
Week 13 vs. Seattle: 3.0 ypc
The run blocking was so awful last week that they even failed to convert on 4th-and-inches, with two offensive linemen completely whiffing on their blocks. It was a pivotal play that cost Chicago points on the board, points that would have eventually won them the game.
This could be a chemistry issue, one that will resolve itself once these guys get more playing time together, but it could also be a harbinger of things to come. If it is the latter, and Chicago is unable to improve the run blocking, the Bears will have to turn to a 31st-ranked passing attack that has just one good receiver.
In the playoffs, that just won't cut it.
In today's quarterback-driven NFL, the priority is to keep Cutler upright, so the protection has to hold course. Yet it won't do the offense any good if the run game can't support the aerial attack. If an opposing defense can force the Bears to become one-dimensional in the playoffs, it won't matter how good Cutler and Marshall are, Chicago will lose.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.