Under the three-year reign of former offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Mike Tice, the Chicago Bears finished 32nd, 27th and 25th in the NFL in sacks allowed. Tice knew how to build a run game but his pass protection schemes were extremely ineffective.
GM Phil Emery realized this past offseason that changes were necessary and he infused new blood into the offensive line. In free agency, he signed Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson to shore up the left side of the line, then drafted Kyle Long and Jordan Mills as right-side starters.
This resulted in the Bears opening the season with four new starters, with center Roberto Garza the only holdover from the Tice era. The front five worked together from the second week of training camp on and jelled early. After a Week 1 contest in which the unit allowed zero sacks to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that finished in the Top 10 in the NFL in sacks this year, it was immediately clear the dramatic improvement up front.
Chicago's offense finished second in the league in points scored, eighth in total offense, fifth in passing and 16th in rushing. It was the first time since 2006 a Bears offense finished in the top half of the league in all four categories, and much of the credit goes to the offensive line.
The most impressive statistic came in pass protection, with the offensive line allowing the fourth fewest sacks in league (30, or less than two per contest). It's no surprise that both Jay Cutler and Josh McCown played at the highest levels of their respective careers this year, as most NFL signal callers can eat up opposing defenses if given enough time.
Let's dig a bit further and evaluate the performance of each individual blocker.
C Roberto Garza
Garza struggles mightily against big nose tackle and has a hard time getting push off the snap. He's not a mauler. Yet he had a very quiet but solid season at the pivot in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Garza gave up the fewest sacks (1), the fewest QB hits (0) and the fewest QB hurries (12) on the team. He'll turn 35 in March and will soon hit free agency. If he decides to continue playing, Emery said the team would like for him to return for at least one more year, as his experience and on-field veteran leadership proved very valuable last season.
LG Matt Slauson
Slauson was outstanding in 2013. As a run blocker, his quickness and athleticism made him a perfect fit in Kromer's zone-blocking system. On pulls, traps and at the second level, Slauson showed very good awareness and power. He was even better in pass protection, demonstrating keen field vision and balance. An argument can be made that Slauson was a legitimate Pro Bowl snub in 2013. Yet while the Pro Bowl voters ignored him, Bears brass did not, rewarding Slauson after the season with a four-year contract.
RG Kyle Long
Long was every bit as athletic as advertised coming out of Oregon, yet he went through a lot of growing pains this year. As a run blocker, Long had his moments, demonstrating a lot of power when he was able to get a full head of steam. Yet he missed a number of blocks, particularly in short yardage. He showed potential in the run game, he just needs to improve on his consistency. Long fared much better in pass protection, utilizing a violent hand punch and good balance to keep defenders at bay. He needs to work on his awareness and blitz recognition but Long proved to be a valuable first-round selection. For his efforts in his rookie season, Long was named a Pro Bowl alternate.
LT Jermon Bushrod
The Bears made Bushrod, a two-time Pro Bowler, the highest paid offensive lineman in franchise history. He may not have lived up to his contract in 2013 but he was a vast upgrade over his predecessor. As a run blocker, Bushrod is very good in space and was used often as the swing blocker on pitch plays. He lacks ideal push at the point of attack but he can hold his own in 1-on-1 situations. In pass protection, he showed very good athleticism and recovery ability. Yet Bushrod gave up far too many pressures (42) and allowed the most sacks on the team (4). Bull rushes in particular gave him a lot of problems. Bushrod is a solid player who shored up an area of extreme weakness for the Bears, but he'll need to step up next season if he's going to justify that monster contract.
RT Jordan Mills
Like Bushrod, Mills is a very athletic offensive tackle who can locate and lock up defenders in space. On top of that, he's arguably the best short-yardage run blocker on the team. No player up front provides as much power off the snap as Mills. Yet he struggled mightily in pass protection. In 2013, Mills allowed 62 QB hurries, which was the most of any offensive tackle in the league, according to PFF. Those 62 hurries are more than J'Marcus Webb allowed in 2011 and 2012 combined – that's how bad Mills was on the right edge. He gave up just three sacks, yet that had much to do with Trestman's quick passing attack and the fact Mills plays on the right side, where Cutler and McCown could see the rush coming. He's a good young player but if Mills doesn't improve in protection next season, he could end up riding the pine.
OT Eben Britton
Britton was used as the club's sixth offensive tackle for 239 snaps last year. As a short-yardage blocker, Britton served a crucial role and helped open a number of holes in the run game. He'll be a free agent this offseason but if the Bears re-sign him, he'll challenge Mills for a starting gig in 2014.
2013 O-Line Grade: B
In pass protection, Chicago's offensive line was one of the best in the league last year. The dramatic improvement in the team's aerial attack would not have been possible if not for wall-like production of the Bears' front five.
Yet in short-yardage situations, the offensive line was one of the worst in the league. Football Outsiders (FO) uses a metric called Power Success, defined as the "percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer."
In essence, Power Success measures how well an offensive line performed in short-yardage snaps. In 2013, Chicago ranked 30th in the league in Power Success and were stuffed (tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage) on 21 percent of those snaps. It's an area of real concern, one that has to improve next year if the Bears' offense is going to develop into an elite unit.
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.