The Chicago Bears offensive line is bruised and battered.
Kyle Long (viral infection) hasn’t practiced since OTAs, Matt Slauson (shoulder) has sat out the second half of the past two practices, and there is no timetable for the return of Eben Britton (hamstring).
Chicago’s offensive line was remarkably healthy last year, with no missed starts amongst the front five. Those things tend to even out from season to season, which will give added value to this year’s backup blockers.
The coaching staff has been rotating Michael Ola and Brian de la Puente at both guard positions, while de la Puente also appears to be the frontrunner for the backup center spot as well.
After three years as the starting center for the New Orleans Saints, de le Puente signed a one-year deal with the Bears this offseason to compete for a roster spot. So far, that competition has brought out the best in him.
“The competition really does hold you accountable. It breeds excellence and it holds you to a higher standard,” de la Puente told Bear Report. “Competition really is what drives a team. I think the coaching staff here really puts us in positions to create that competition and you’ve got to thrive in it. I love it.”
In 1-on-1 drills, de la Punte has shown a solid base and a strong upper body. His footwork has been very good and he can move down the line quickly, which fits well in the zone-blocking system of coordinator Aaron Kromer, whom de la Puente also played under in New Orleans.
“[Knowing Kromer’s system] definitely helps with the transition,” said de la Puente. “A lot of the terminology, it’s like learning a new language, so if you know it, learning the new ins and outs that have been added or tweaked or changed, that transition is easier. There is definitely a lot of new things but a lot of the terminology and that kind of stuff is very similar.”
Also aiding in his transition to Chicago was his friendship with Bears left tackle Jermon Bushrod, his line mate with the Saints.
“That definitely helped the transition,” de la Puente said. “Jermon, his wife and my wife, we’re all friends, so the transition of coming to a new city, finding where to live, all that stuff, it definitely helps when you know a guy on the team.”
To this point, de la Puente has been a welcome addition to the front five. Yet he still has a lot to learn, as he hasn’t played a single NFL snap at guard, where he’s been rotating since OTAs. Despite his inexperience at guard, de la Puente said rotating at multiple positions during training camp will help him in the long run.
“When you’re learning multiple positions, you get a better grasp of the offense. You get a better grasp of the scheme, you get a better grasp of what is trying to get accomplished,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a pretty good handle on what everybody is trying to do, so you can then think on the move, play your rules, because you know what everybody is doing. So for me it’s good to get back and get some guard, to get that technique, because it is different, to get that technique work and get more comfortable at it.”
With every offensive line, chemistry is key. The Bears glued together four new parts up front last year and the group jelled immediately, giving up the fourth fewest sacks in the NFL. For de la Puente, a newcomer to the offense, he sees communication as the key to this unit’s success.
“First off, the O-line room is tight,” he said. “Everybody outside of the room are friends and when you can have that kind of camaraderie in the O-line room, it’s key. Communication is really important, so when you get all of that stuff, ball it and get it together, you’re going to have, hopefully, not a lot of sacks. Working together, working hard, studying film together, all being on the same page all the time is key, and this group does that.”
At 29 years old, de la Puente could be the long-term heir to Roberto Garza, who is 35 and playing on a one-year deal. If de la Puente continues to shine in camp, and plays well in the preseason, he should be able to solidify his spot as the backup offensive lineman and swing guard for the Bears this season.
In that role, de la Puente could see a lot of field time, as the injury bug has already begun to bite Chicago’s blockers. His performance this year will be key in not only the success of the offense, but de la Puente earning a long-term deal to be the club’s pivot of the future.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.