Injuries Putting Bears Offensive Line in Compromising Position(s)

Injuries up front have exposed the lack of depth and quality of Chicago's offensive line, which could play out in an ugly way on Sunday.

The Kansas City Chiefs can bring it on defense. Their nine team sacks are tied for ninth in the NFL, led by OLB Justin Houston, who has 3.0 sacks through four games and comes off a 2014 campaign in which he led the NFL with 22.0 sacks.

Houston is an absolute locomotive coming off the edge, who picked up his first three career sacks in a 10-7 victory over the Bears in 2011, one in which he made J'Marcus Webb look like a turnstyle.

Houston has benefited from having Tamba Hali rushing from the other side of the defensive line. Hali is a 10-year veteran who has averaged 8.5 sacks per season during his career.

In addition, the Chiefs feature DE Allen Bailey, who had 5.0 sacks last season and already has 2.0 this year. His ability to penetrate in the face of the quarterback is key for Kansas City's pass rush.

And that's against good offensive lines, a category in which the Chicago Bears do not reside.

The Bears lost center Will Montgomery after he broke his leg against the Raiders. They used left guard Matt Slauson as the emergency center but Slauson hasn't hid the fact he'd rather play his natural left guard spot. Still, it's clear that, despite the fact he's never started an NFL contest at center, Slauson is the best option to replace Montgomery. He's a seven-year veteran who has faced every type of defense, seen every type of blitz package and been in every possible game scenario. That has value in spite of his inexperience at the position.

"I'm pretty in tune with the offense," Slauson said this week. "Me and Will spend a lot of time together going over the plans so that I can help with some of the identifications. So as far as all the calls and identifications go, that wasn't an issue for me. That was smooth."

At the pivot, crucial decisions are made before the snap, ones that often mean the difference between a big gain and a big loss. NFL protection schemes are complicated and require a center that can identify and adjust on the fly. That's made three times as hard on the road in an extremely loud arena like Arrowhead Stadium, against a tricky 3-4 defense like that of the Chiefs.

Throwing third-round rookie Hroniss Grasu into that situation would be suicide. In fact, putting Grasu on the field at all could portend a difficult, painful afternoon for quarterback Jay Cutler and the entire Bears offense.

During training camp, Grasu was routinely beat at the point of attack and struggled in one-on-one drills, particularly against bigger, powerful interior defenders. Then in the preseason, he was knocked around at an alarming rate against opposing second- and third-team defensive linemen, most of whom are no longer in the league.

So it was no surprise when the Bears kept Grasu inactive for the first four regular-season contests.

The problem is that Patrick Omameh, who was decent at left guard against the Raiders after Montgomery went down, has not practiced this week due to ankle injury and may not be able to play this weekend. That would thrust Grasu into a starting role at either center or, more likely, left guard.

Facing the reality of Grasu potentially starting Sunday, the Bears have said all the right things.

"He’s a great guy, works really hard. Very smart guy," Slauson said. "The progress he has made since being here has been awesome. So I don’t know what’s going to happen as far as who’s playing where. Is he going to be dressing now? I don't know. But I know if his number gets called, I think he’ll do great."

The issue with Grasu, something he himself addressed this week, is his size. At 6-3, 297, he's a little thin and lacks power at the point of attack.

"Since training camp I've been spending a lot of time in the weight room," Grasu said. "I was told to gain some weight, put on some pounds, as well as building my muscle mass. I've been very careful with my diet, eating what will help me reach those goals."

While that might help long-term, Grasu had not had sufficient time to add significant strength. Yet Slauson thinks Grasu can use that to his advantage.

"The thing about him is, he can be small and play in that role," Slauson said. "Casey Wiegmann did it forever. (Kevin) Mawae. There’s definitely a place for the smaller centers. The only problem is, I can’t help him, technique-wise, because I don’t play like that. Everything I try to tell him is, just embrace your size and your gifts — because he’s able to do a lot of things that I can’t, speed and athleticism-wise.

"As far as bracing against a really big guy, I think he’d be fine with that. You just have to learn how to use your leverage and your hands, but then all the rest is a lot of trick-type stuff — jumping arund guys and using their momentum against them. As soon as he figures out how to play with his tools, I think he’ll be really good."

The bottom line is that Grasu does not have the power to start in the NFL nor the experience to use technique to his advantage. He's a project, not a finished product. Whether the Bears should have used a third-round pick on a developmental player is a discussion for a different time. The fact of the matter is that Grasu is not ready to start but will likely be in the starting lineup against a dangerous Kansis City defensive front.

Complicating matters is left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who has not practiced this week due to the concussion he suffered in Week 3. If Bushrod can't play, Charles Leno will make his second start on the left edge. Assuming Grasu starts at left guard, that means the left side of Chicago's offensive line against the Chiefs will have a combined one career start under their belts.

That's scary, especially with Cutler still less than 100 percent due to his hamstring injury. He won't be as mobile as usual, which could put him in some compromising situations if the Leno/Grasu wall crumbles on his blindside.

Things are better on the right side, yet only slightly. While the long-term prognosis for Kyle Long at right tackle is positive, he's going through some growing pains and currently leads the team in sacks allowed (3) and QB hurries (8). In addition, Vladimir Ducasse has been a penalty machine and has given up 7 QB hurries of his own.

The Bears made mid-level moves this off-season in an attempt to cobble together an offensive line made of spare parts and low draft picks, and now it's coming back to bite them.

You can't fix everything in one year and the Bears certainly had a lot of holes to fill this past off-season. This situation doesn't make GM Ryan Pace incompetent, it just means he must make the offensive line a priority heading into next year's off-season.


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