The Chicago Bears have underperformed on offense this year, ranking 14th in yards per game (353.6) and 20th in points per game (22.5). The offensive line, which has featured six different starting lineups in eight games, has played a role in those diminished returns.
Injuries have hampered this unit all year. C Roberto Garza missed four games, LT Jermon Bushrod missed two, RT Jordan Mills missed last week and LG Matt Slauson missed three games before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral last week.
It’s very tough to develop continuity up front when the team is starting a different lineup each week. In 2013, the starting five didn’t miss a single start. This year, it’s been the exact opposite.
The only Day-1 starter who hasn’t missed time this year is RG Kyle Long, who has logged a team-high 549 snaps this year. Long has continued his development this seasons following his Pro Bowl rookie campaign in 2013. He’s been very solid as a run blocker and hasn’t allowed a sack or a QB hit all year, per Pro Football Focus (PFF).
The same can’t be said for fellow second-year lineman Mills, who has struggled mightily this year. Mills has allowed the 10th most QB hurries (18) amongst NFL offensive tackles, and the third most sacks (5), per PFF. In addition, he’s been highly inconsistent as a run blocker and has the most penalties (6) of any offensive lineman.
Mills has been dealing with soreness in his surgically repaired foot, which forced him out of action last week and surely hasn’t helped his overall production. After leading the league in QB hurries last year, it appears the Bears may have seen enough of Mills on the right edge.
With Slauson done for the season, head coach Marc Trestman said this week the team may shift Mills to left guard.
“We’ve got a number of guys we can move into that position. We can go with Jordan moving into that position,” said Trestman. “I think that he could fit into any position. We've had some discussions about it to see what is going to be best for our line with Matt moving out and we'll continue to do that. I'm leaving that open-ended, we'll see where that goes.”
It appears the Bears feel comfortable with Michael Ola at right tackle in place of Mills. Ola has started games at left guard, left tackle and on the right edge this season. He’s shown good quickness and solid footwork, so it’s possible he’s a better fit at tackle than Mills, who is often eaten up by good edge rushers. At three different positions this year, Ola has allowed just one sack and two QB hits.
Eben Britton will also be in the competition to replace Slauson. Britton has assumed his role as the club’s sixth offensive lineman this year and, as he did in 2013, he’s been very good as a run blocker. His presence at left guard could give the Bears some much-needed push in the run game.
At left tackle, there is no competition, as Bushrod has again been a steady presence protecting Jay Cutler’s blindside. He’s given up two sacks and three QB hits, per PFF, and has been the club’s best blocker at the second level.
At center, the Bears have two starter-caliber players. In 229 snaps this year, Roberto Garza hasn’t allowed a sack or a QB hit, while he’s been very good blocking in front of screen passes. Garza is likely in his final NFL season but he’s still a quality veteran presence at the pivot.
In 320 snaps at center, Brian de la Puente has been steady. He doesn’t get much push but he’s a solid technician in the run game and hasn’t given up a QB hit or a QB pressure all year. He struggles at the second level but de la Puente has proven capable of being Garza’s long-term predecessor.
Overall, the inconsistency of the offensive line has mirrored the inconsistency of the offense as a whole. After allowing the fourth fewest sacks in the league last season (30), the Bears have already given up 20 sacks, which ranks 22nd in the league.
The Bears rank just 16th in rushing but are 12th in the NFL in yards per rush (4.4), so they’ve been acceptable up front for Matt Forte. It’s been the play calling, and not the blockers, that has handcuffed Chicago’s run game.
Things won’t get easier with Slauson on the shelf but with Aaron Kromer at the helm, Chicago’s front five should have no problem serving as the foundation of the offense over the next eight games, no matter what the starting front five looks like.
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.