Bears' hopes rest on maligned O-line
A shuffled-up O-line carries the heaviest burden for the Bears' struggles
Perhaps just the sight of Rex Grossman this Sunday will remind Bears fans of how bad things could be.
Maybe the sight of Mike Shanahan will remind Jay Cutler how much he misses his old mentor and prompt him to show the Redskins' coach how far he has come.
Then again, maybe the sight of Albert Haynesworth being unleashed on Cutler's head will remind all of us how loudly Bears fans can boo their own team when properly motivated.
Shake it all out, and the Bears' fate against the Washington still rests with the offensive line.
Quarterback sacks, third-down conversions, the Bears' biggest shortcomings on offense, we understand, are the responsibility of all 11 players on the field. But it's the young, inexperienced and shuffled-up O-line that carries the heaviest burden. That unit will determine whether Cutler survives the next Sunday, much less the entire season.
Even Bears general manager Jerry Angelo admits he is concerned pass protection will remain problematic based on past performance -- the old eye test doesn't lie -- and worse, that he isn't sure a little continuity in the line will make a difference.
"I know that's going to improve the line; it's a fact," Angelo told the Bears' website. "How confident am I that it's going to come together right away? I can't sit here and tell you that."
Angelo went on to say that you can't evaluate players until they are in "the heat of battle." But so far, when the heat has been on, the battles have not gone so well.
A line that has been varied four times in six games and includes one seventh-round draft pick, a player four weeks removed from the practice squad and a left side that has been injured and shuffled all season deserves some slack.
Throw in the fact that tight ends and running backs have failed to pick up blitzes, receivers have failed to cut short their routes and get open, and Cutler has blown some hot reads, and the line doesn't deserve all the abuse.
"It's a growing process," Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. "These guys will learn and we're going good, then we'll take a step back and then we'll move on. But I'm excited about who we have, and I'm real excited about the offensive line and the progress we're making. It's going to be an outstanding group, I really believe that."
Martz made a concerted effort Wednesday to praise the line and its coach, Mike Tice, amid speculation that the two might be philosophically butting heads behind the scenes.
He also said he felt it was in the line's best interest to continue to simplify the offense, saying it's the reason he all but abandoned the run against Seattle despite the Bears' success the week before against Carolina, when they ran it 42 times
"There are different challenges for us in the running game, and we're trying to keep things a little simple for that group," Martz said. "We probably should have run the ball more, particularly in the second half . But again, we're trying to keep things simple, and it's the wrong thing to do. We need to do what we do."
And evidently, center Olin Kreutz, despite his deflections when the subject is brought up, needs to do what he does, which is tutor his young minions on every play.
"No one likes a loss, and the NFL is the top premiere league and people are going to get off on your mistakes," right guard Edwin Williams said. "So you just have to make sure you don't make as many and just be focused in and listen up.
"The good thing is, you have Olin Kreutz at center, somebody that is just going to tell you what to do every play, so it's not much overthinking the situation. He'll make sure we're all on the same page this week."
Communication, Williams said, has been at the heart of the line's problems.
"Most definitely because myself and J'Marcus, we're young guys, so we've got to just communicate on each play, whereas when you have a veteran offensive line, guys don't have to talk as much," he said. "But with us jumping in there, we have to tell everybody what we're doing on each play so Olin knows that everybody is on the same page and can communicate to everybody -- running backs, quarterback, receivers."
Williams said the Seahawks' defense did some things in the first quarter for which the Bears were unprepared.
"But we came back together and Olin told us, 'You've got to communicate, communicate.' He's really good about that kind of stuff. We have certain things fixed but obviously not good enough to win."
One thing the Bears did not fix and have not fixed all season is their third-down conversion rate -- last in the league at a feeble 13-of-76 (17 percent) in six games and 3-for-42 over the past three.
"It will keep drives going, so yeah," Cutler said when asked whether fixing the third-down problem will repair their offense. "That's the key to football: red zone, third down and probably turnovers. If you're converting third downs and if you're keeping drives alive, you're holding onto the ball and keeping your defense off the field, kicking field goals and scoring touchdowns. You're going to put yourself in a position to win."
Martz said "the littlest things" are responsible for the Bears' ineptitude on third downs. "A tipped ball, a slip on a route, there's just some goofy things that have happened to us," he said.
Cutler agreed it wouldn't take much to make progress.
"One would be an improvement," he said to scattered laughs. "I don't think it would be that hard. Like everything else, it's going to start up front with those guys."
It always does.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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