It was Week 12 last season, inside the Metrodome in Minneapolis, where the Bears were in the second quarter of an embarrassing 36-10 loss to the Vikings. On 2nd and 1 at its own 35-yard line, Chicago lined up in a three-receiver, shotgun set.
At the snap, left tackle Orlando Pace picked up right defensive end Jared Allen, while on the other side, right tackle Chris Williams blocked left defensive end Ray Edwards. In the middle, defensive tackles Jimmy Kennedy and Kevin Williams ran a crossing stunt. Kennedy, who was lined up across from right guard Roberto Garza, crashed into center Olin Kreutz. Garza slid inside to double team Kennedy. Williams then swung behind his line mate, forcing Garza to quit the double team and pick him up.
All the while, left guard Frank Omiyale was apparently enjoying the scenery.
Kennedy powered into Kreutz's left shoulder until the former Pro Bowler was completely spun around, finally collapsing into Garza's backside. This left Kennedy a clear path to the quarterback. He grabbed Jay Cutler and took him down for a 10-yard loss.
After watching this pathetic display of blocking on tape, I wrote in my column the next day, "Let's face it: This is the worst offensive line in the league. In fact, this may be the worst O-line this franchise has assembled the past 30 years."
I stand by that statement still, as would most anyone who watched the offensive line regress week by week last season. Continually, the front five were either hurt, over the hill or out of place, resulting in career-worst performances for Cutler and running back Matt Forte.
It was obvious to most that changes needed to be made during the offseason. Yet the free-agency period came and went, and there were no new pieces added to the puzzle. Then the draft flew by, with general manager Jerry Angelo drafting just one offensive lineman – in the seventh round. With hardly any change to the personnel, it's easy to assume the 2010 version of the Bears' offensive line will be just as inept as its predecessor.
But that may not necessarily be the case.
There are reasons for hope, the first and foremost of which was the signing of Mike Tice as the new offensive line coach. Harry Hiestand had held the post the last five seasons under then-offensive coordinator Ron Turner. In his defense, Hiestand was never handed a group of Pro Bowlers to work with, yet he was never able to squeeze the most out of his players either. Also, Turner's blocking schemes were stale and predictable.
A change was absolutely necessary, and in stepped Tice and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Tice spent the last four seasons in Jacksonville, developing its offensive line into a powerhouse. During his tenure there, the Jaguars finished in the top 10 in the league in rushing three of his four years – twice in the top three. His pedigree speaks for itself, as he has nine years experience coaching offensive lines in the NFL with success following him at every stop.
"We're excited," Garza said during organized team activities (OTAs). "Mike Tice brings a lot to our room, a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge. It's fun to get out here and compete."
And compete they will. Tice brought with him a fresh approach to coaching the offensive line, which includes the use of blocking sleds during practice – those haven't been seen at Halas Hall in ages.
"Any time you get a chance to hit something and move it and get in the right position with leverage, it's good," Garza said. "It's heavy as hell, so it's fun. I can't complain."
Tice has also put renewed emphasis on the fundamentals of blocking in an effort to break the Bears' linemen of bad habits acquired the past few years.
"First and foremost across the board is their usage of hands, carrying their hands higher and not dropping their hands, which in turn makes their shoulders go forward, which in turn makes them whiff," said Tice during OTAs. "We've been working diligently on their hands every day. We're working a bag that we've designed to help them with their hand carriage and the way they approach and strike with their hands, not only in the run game but in pass protection, too."
Yet it's not just the players' hands Tice is focusing on. It's also their feet.
"The other thing we're working on is their steps, their footwork," he said. "We want to be more forward. We want to be taking the line of scrimmage and having a more positive step toward the line of scrimmage – to try to eliminate any type of bucket step or drop step. Those things take time. It takes repetitions. It takes the guys buying in."
This change of philosophy can only be a positive for a group that finished 29th overall in rushing last season. In other words, they can only get better.
The first moving part was the departure of Pace, the veteran who was outmatched from Day 1 last year, at times looking like a turnstile for defenders to run through. Williams, a former first-round pick, will slide from right tackle to left tackle, his home position and the one for which he was drafted 14th overall in 2008.
This move could prove to be the most beneficial, for when the Bears' coaching staff switched him to the left side the last two games of 2009 – after Pace called it quits on the season – the number of sacks allowed decreased from more than three per game to only two. If Cutler isn't constantly worried about blind-side protection, he may not feel rushed to get rid of the ball, which could result in fewer interceptions.
Questions remain for the rest of the front five, yet there is cause for optimism. Kreutz, the stalwart in the middle of the line since 1998, dealt with an Achilles' tendon injury throughout most of last season. He had offseason surgery to fix the problem and will be 100 percent come Week 1. At age 33, no one should expect him to suddenly revert back to his previous Pro Bowl form, but being healthy will most likely raise his level of play.
Omiyale, who failed miserably at left guard, has shifted to right tackle, his natural position. One can only speculate as to how he'll perform, as he doesn't have much of a sample size to fall back on, but he can't be any worse on the edge than he was in the middle.
"Even though it's my first year on the right side, at least I've already got the fundamentals and things," Omiyale said. "It's different switching everything around, and there's been some growing pains, but the biggest thing is that I know how to play tackle. Plus, at tackle, the majority of the time you're blocking the end, so that's better."
Garza will again be positioned at right guard, where he has started 64 consecutive games for the Bears. While there is value in experience, Garza has never been more than serviceable and is often overmatched by bulldozing nose tackles. He is not the strength of this line, yet he's definitely not its weakness.
The weakness will come at left guard, where at the time of this writing, two second-year players with no experience – Lance Louis and Johan Asiata – and three-year veteran Josh Beekman are battling for the starting slot. Beekman is by far the most tenured of the three, starting 16 games at left guard in 2008, yet he still has not proven himself to be anything more than a quality backup.
That leaves the position up for grabs if Louis – a second-year, seventh-round pick – or Asiata – a second-year, undrafted free agent – wants to take it from Beekman. Tice spoke highly of both players during the offseason, but unless one of them suddenly flips the switch, the left guard spot will be a weak point the entire season.
Veteran lineman Kevin Shaffer was in the mix for the left guard position at the beginning of OTAs but will most likely be the primary backup tackle. He has shown flashes of ability, which makes him valuable coming off the bench, but if he ever becomes the full-time starter, it could get ugly.
Then there is the wild card: Martz. The new offensive coordinator is known for running a pass-heavy, high-octane system that racks up yardage and points. This involves running numerous three-, four- and five-receiver sets, leaving protection for the QB at a bare minimum. As a result, Martz's offenses are known for giving up a lot of sacks, so it's going to be hard for this front five to improve on the 35 sacks it gave up last season.
What will change is the predictability of the run game. The days of power-I and two-tight end sets are over, meaning the offensive line will have to use creativity and deception to open up holes for Forte and newly-acquired Chester Taylor. This may involve more zone blocking, which is a far cry from any scheme Turner ever drew up.
Overall, Martz's offense will most likely be a burden on the offensive line and could set them up for some rough outings. It would be different if the front five had already developed some cohesiveness, but with players being shuffled around like playing cards, it's hard to see them jelling right away in a system that utilizes hundreds of sets and thousands of plays. If anything, it will take this unit, if it stays together – which may not be likely considering Kreutz's contract is up at the end of the year – at least a full slate of games to grasp the Martz playbook.
That brings us back to Tice, the key to the offensive line's success. It's obvious this is not a group of superstars, so it will be up to him to mold this unit into serviceability. If his new techniques and practice philosophy have a marked effect on the guys up front, improvement is a definite possibility.
However, if he's unable to build something out of nothing, it will again be a long season for Bears fans.
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Jeremy Stoltz is the editor-in-chief of The Business Ledger, the business newspaper for suburban Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.
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