Prevailing wisdom in and around the NFL is that games are most often decided in the trenches. The teams whose offensive and defensive lines out-perform their counterparts are highly likely to come out on top.
So for the 2015 Chicago Bears - a 6-10 team whose offense finished 18th overall, 23rd in passing and 23rd in points scored - the offensive line deserves a large share of the blame.
Let's dive in and analyze the play of each of Chicago's front five blockers this season.
During off-season activites, the Bears experimented with Long - who was coming off two straight Pro Bowl seasons at right guard - at right and left tackle. Yet during training camp and the preseason, Long played almost exclusively at right guard.
In a somewhat surpring move made less than a week before the start of the regular season, the Bears cut Jordan Mills, who had started at right tackle the previous two seasons, and shifted Long to the right edge, where he had never before played.
As a result, Long struggled to find consistency at right tackle the entire season.
At guard in 2014, he gave up just 2 QB hits, 13 QB hurries and no sacks. At tackle in 2015, he allowed 3 QB hits, 28 QB hurries and 6 sacks. That's a substantial step backward. Long showed a lot of hesitancy early in the year and struggled with his technique.
Yet down the stretch, Long got his legs underneath him, both figuratively and literally. Outside of a rough Week 15 outing against the Vikings, he was solid in the final six games, showing his trademark power and athletic ability.
As a result, Long today was named to his third straight Pro Bowl, replacing Eagles OT Jason Peters.
Going forward, Long still has plenty of work to do if he's to become a consistently reliable force on the right edge. The good news for Bears fans is that Long is smart and driven, while a full off-season of work at his new position should help him grow immensely.
For the third straight year, Matt Slauson was the most consistent blocker for the Bears, and he did it at two different positions. He started 11 games at his normal left guard spot and started at center in the other five contests following Will Montgomery's season-ending broken leg.
No matter the position, Slauson was his typical dominant self. He was effective as a run blocker and was the team's best front five player in pass protection. In a team-high 1,104 snaps, he allowed just 9 QB hurries and 1 QB hit, the fewest on the team, and 2 sacks.
While Long gets all the accolades due to his Hall of Fame father and his larger-than-life presence, the quiet Slauson continues to be the model of consistency for Chicago's offensive line.
The club's 2014 seventh-round draft pick, Leno was given an opportunity to start at left tackle after Jermon Bushrod went down with injury, and Leno ran with it. From Week 4 on, Leno did not miss a single offensive snap on game days, which relegated Bushrod to backup duty.
Leno was far from perfect though, allowing a team-high 32 QB hurries and 6 QB hits, as well as 4 sacks. Still, Leno showed signs of potential, particularly in his sound technique and ability to anchor against powerful edge rushers.
The jury is still out for Leno as the club's potential left tackle of the future. He doesn't have ideal size (6-3, 302) or strength, but he does have a powerful hand punch and good balance.
There's a chance GM Ryan Pace will look to replace Leno in the draft, assuming the right player falls into his lap, but if Pace foregoes the left tackle position, Leno isn't a horrible option going forward.
Ducasse opend the season as Chicago's starting right guard, where he stared eight contests. Due to injuries at the center position, he also started three games at left guard.
At the point of attack, Ducasse was solid and performed well as a run blocker on both sides of the offensive line. Yet he was a liability on passing downs, giving up 23 QB hurries, 3 QB hits and 2 sacks in just nine starts.
Ducasse is athletic and moves well on pulls, traps and second-level blocks, but he doesn't have the agility or anchor ability to pass protect inside.
The Bears signed Omameh at the start of the regular season after he was cut by the Buccaneers. He got his first game action in Week 4 after Montgomery was felled and became the full-time starter at right guard in Week 8, before being flipped to left guard in the final two contests.
Omameh was Chicago's top run blocker this season. The Bears were very effective running behind Omemah, who uses immense power and leverage off the ball. He struggled at times in pass protection but overall, he wasn't a complete liability, giving up just 2 sacks and 15 QB hurries on the year.
Omameh isn't flashy and had some bad missed blocks in pass protection this year but he's a better blocker than most give him credit.
The club's 3rd-round draft pick, Grasu had a rough rookie season. After struggling against the Cleveland Browns third stringers in the preseason, he was a healthy scratch through the first four weeks of the season.
Yet the Bears were forced to thrust Grasu into the starting lineup after Montgomery was injured. Things didn't get any better, as Grasu's lack of strength and size inside were painfully obvious.
To be fair, centers don't need to be huge and strong but they must understand leverage and blocking angles in order to be effective. Grasu struggled in both areas and did not have the power to make up for his lack of technique.
As such, he was routinely plowed over by opposing defenders and only briefly showed flashes of his potential, particularly at the second level, where his agility and athleticism have value.
Grasu in no way showed enough as a rookie to be considered the team's starting center going into next season. He's still a work in progress, one who has a long road ahead of him.
Bushrod was nagged by injuries all year, including a back injury that limited his movement. His time on the bench allowed Leno to claim the left tackle gig and Bushrod never returned to the starting lineup.
Once healthy, he assumed the club's sixth offensive lineman role in the second half of the season, playing 238 snaps as Chicago's "Monster Tight End."
Bushrod never lived up to expectations after the Bears made him the highest paid offensive lineman in franchise history in 2013 and, as such, will likely be cut this upcoming off-season.
Montgomery was a solid veteran presence at the pivot before breaking his leg in Week 4, which landed him on IR. He turns 33 next month, so Montgomery would only be a one- or two-year rental if the Bears choose to re-sign him.
Long and Slauson are the foundation for Chicago's offensive line but beyond those two, it's wide open. Leno may get replaced with a high draft pick, Montgomery may not get re-signed, while Ducasse and Omameh are unlikely to return. Grasu is a turnstile and Bushrod will likely be cut.
The Bears have a lot of weapons amongst their skill players, so investments in free agency and the draft won't be necessary at those positions. So if Pace is going to invest on offense, it has to be in the trenches. A few quality veterans and a stud rookie would solidify the front five and help the Bears offense take another step forward.null