For years, the Chicago Bears have struggled to field a competitive offensive line. Particularly in pass protection, Chicago's front five has been mediocre at best since quarterback Jay Cutler's arrival in 2009. The failures up front, as well as a lack of suitable weapons around him, are why so many have given Cutler a free pass for his average play the past four seasons.
Yet GM Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman aren't in the free-pass business.
Emery has reloaded the roster on the offensive side of the ball, along the line and at the skill positions. And through just two preseason games, Trestman has re-shuffled his blockers to the point where only Roberto Garza remains as a starter. The rest of the first-team front five didn't even play for the Bears last year.
This should bode well for not only Cutler, but also running back Matt Forte, who has just as much to gain from an improved blocking unit.
"They did a great job," Forte said this week. "If we can get a push off of the ball on the line of scrimmage … I can basically use my vision in the zone blocking scheme and find a hole. I think we'll be fine in the running game."
The new zone scheme of coordinator Aaron Kromer appears to be a great fit for the two rookie in the starting lineup: right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills. In their first game together as starters against the San Diego Chargers last week, both graded extremely well in the run game. Each showed the requisite quickness and awareness, particularly at the second level, to be very effective in a zone system.
"They're doing a good job," said Forte. "I'm really impressed, especially by Jordan. I didn't even really notice him during OTAs because we didn't have pads on. But he's stepped up during camp and has been doing a great job."
The two kids made their fair share of mistakes and both have a long way to go, but their progress the last month is very promising.
"They have to continue their development. There's a lot of development that needs to be done yet," Kromer said. "Luckily we have two or three weeks left before we play Cincinnati, and it's important that we keep working each day."
For Cutler, he knows it's early in the process. After getting pressured from the right side in the last game, he's reserving judgment on the rookies.
"They've got a ways to go," Cutler said. "I think everyone on offense, including myself, we're still in the learning process, we're still figuring things out as we move along. But it is positive to see them go out there and perform the way we did."
The left side of the offensive line has also played very well. Newcomers Matt Slauson and Jermon Bushrod have been solid in both protection and the run game. On Forte's 58-yard scamper last week, a stretch run left, Bushrod flew into space and set the block the freed up the running back for a huge gain on the ground.
"We just talk it out and try to fix our corrections in practice," Bushrod said in regard to the chemistry up front. "If you don't do your job to the best of your ability in practice, come game time it's going to be the same mistakes. If we can continue to correct those mistakes as much as we can, we can have some time for our playmakers to make some plays."
So far, Forte has been one of the playmakers taking advantage of the new offensive front, averaging 9.8 yards per carry against the Chargers. Yet he also expects to be a large contributor in the passing game under Trestman, who has always relied heavily on his running backs catching passes out of the backfield. Even though Brandon Marshall is obviously Cutler's number one target each and every time he drops back, Forte still believes there will be plenty of balls to go around, which should further help his production.
"[The offense] does have a lot of formations that we switch in and out. It might be the same play, but it might be a different formation to get somebody else the ball. We have to do that," Forte said. "In games, of course [opposing defenses] are going to be looking at Brandon at receiver and they're going to be looking at me coming out of the backfield and in the backfield, so other people are going to get the ball and are going to get their chance to excel."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.