Remember when J'Marcus Webb was a starting offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears? Of course you do, as Webb was everyone's favorite whipping boy throughout his three-plus years in Chicago.
As a starter for the Bears his first three years in the league, one at right tackle and two at left tackle, Webb was the poster boy for Chicago's futility in pass protection. Webb blocked as if his feet were in cement and his false starts were maddening to even the casual fan.
Yet, because he was Mike Tice's pet project, Webb was never demoted, continually putting Jay Cutler at risk. During his three years as a starter, Webb gave up 31 sacks, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). That's futility at its finest and one of the main reasons he was run out of town by the new coaching staff during this year's preseason.
Just about the time the door was hitting Webb in the butt, Bears fans all let out a collective sigh of relief. With Jermon Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler, taking over at left tackle, the Webb-induced protection issues were supposed to be a thing of the past.
For the most part, that has been the case. After finishing at or near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed between 2010-2012, Chicago is third in the league this year in fewest sacks allowed (21). Unfortunately, the number of sacks alone gives a somewhat false representation of the improvement up front. In particular, rookie right tackle Jordan Mills has struggled mightily.
According to PFF, Mills has given up 54 QB hurries this year, which are 13 more than any other offensive tackle in the league. Those 54 hurries have only resulted in three sacks, which is why Bears fans and media aren't calling for Mills' head with the same vehemence they did Webb.
Yet two factors have played into Mills' low sack total. First, the short passing attack of Marc Trestman is designed to get the ball out quickly, which hasn't allowed defenders to reach the quarterback on a consistent basis. Second, Mills plays on the right side, where both of Chicago's quarterbacks can see the pass rush coming and respond by stepping into the pocket.
If Mills were put in the same position as Webb – playing on the blindside of offenses run by Mike Martz and Mike Tice, where seven-step drops were commonplace – Mills would have many pining for Webb's return. Consider this: Webb allowed 60 hurries total the past two years combined. Mills is on track to eclipse that total this year alone.
Last week, Mills' inability to keep edge rushers out of the backfield finally bit the Bears in the behind. After the Minnesota Vikings tied the game late in the fourth quarter, Devin Hester returned the following kickoff to the 50-yard line. With 14 seconds left in the game, the Bears needed just 10-15 yards to get in Robbie Gould's range.
On first down, Josh McCown dropped back to pass. Mills stepped in front of Vikings DE Brian Robison, who drove outside initially before cutting back inside. Mills was off balance, so Robison was able to toss him aside and take McCown down for the sack. The Bears were forced to use a timeout, eventually leading to a 66-yard field goal attempt that came up five yards short. If Mills can hold the edge on that first-down snap, McCown may have been able to find a receiver for those crucial 10-15 yards, which would have eliminated overtime altogether.
Mills is only a rookie, so some bumps in the road are expected. But at this point, his poor performances are becoming a trend. Having watched him through 12 starts, it's tough to peg Mills as the starting right tackle of the future. If he doesn't show significant strides over the last month of the campaign, the Bears may be in the market for a new edge protector this upcoming offseason.
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.