Protection plan not adding up
Bears' ever-changing offensive line threatening key to season: health of Jay Cutler
CHICAGO -- Jay Cutler stared at a dirty piece of tape stuck on the floor behind a lectern.
Repeatedly, the Chicago Bears quarterback jabbed at it with his foot, rarely looking up to make eye contact during a three-and-a-half-minute interview session Sunday, dominated by questions about the team's leaky line in the wake of Chicago's 23-20 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Understandably, he's sick of discussing the same things every week.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears offensive line coach Mike Tice is still looking for answers from his beleaguered unit.
"We've got to figure it out. It's becoming a problem," Cutler said. "It's on me. It's on the line. It's on the receivers. We've got to make corrections somewhere along the line. I've got to get the ball out quicker. We've got to identify who's coming, who's not."
Most importantly, the Bears need to figure out ways to lighten the punishment doled out to Cutler by opponents. Returning to the lineup after a nine-sack assault against the Giants forced him out of action a week with a concussion, Cutler crumbled again Sunday under a Seahawks pass rush that produced six sacks, including three in the third quarter.
Perhaps more alarming for Chicago is the fact 3.5 of the sacks came courtesy of Seattle defensive backs Jordan Babineaux (1.5), Lawyer Milloy (1) and Roy Lewis. Interestingly, coming into the contest, the Bears -- according to ESPN Stats & Information -- had given up four of their 21 sacks to defensive backs.
Prior to Sunday, Cutler was 11-for-17 in situations when defensive backs blitzed, for a passer rating of 76.3, which ranked 21st in the NFL. Taking advantage of an extra week to prepare because of its bye, Seattle knew just how to attack the Bears.
"Sacks were a big focus, absolutely," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
Milloy said Seattle was "licking our chops a little bit in the way the Giants had success" getting to Cutler.
It probably didn't help Cutler that Chicago rolled out the fourth incarnation of its beleaguered offensive line -- a unit that has used eight different players in the starting lineup -- only to produce worse results than the week before, when the Bears gave up three sacks in a win over the Carolina Panthers.
Every player discussing the offensive line's futility Sunday pointed to a lack of communication as the main issue. As the center, veteran Olin Kreutz serves as somewhat of an air-traffic controller up front in that he makes the line calls which inform the unit of individual responsibilities.
Kreutz denied the notion the club's musical-chairs approach to the offensive line plays into the unit's woes. But it's worth pondering considering Cutler's two worst days in terms of sacks have come in his past two starts, which coincidentally, were games in which the Bears made changes along the offensive line.
Although the Bears started the same offensive line for the second consecutive week when they played the Giants, they made several switches during the contest as Cutler's sack totals mounted along with injuries up front.
"You can make excuses, or you can get it done," Kreutz said. "I didn't get it done today. I have to do a better job communicating to all the guys [about] who they have to block."
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz shares in the blame, too. Although the Seahawks entered the contest with the 31st-ranked pass defense, Martz could have smoothed out Cutler's return by easing the quarterback into the game with a heavy dose of run calls, screens and play-action passes.[+] EnlargeDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireMatt Forte had eight carries for 11 yards on Sunday.
Martz called a balanced game early on with seven runs and seven passes in the first quarter as the teams fought to a 7-7 tie. Seattle took a 14-7 lead on Justin Forsett's 9-yard run at the beginning of the second quarter, and despite the fact Chicago trailed by only one touchdown, Martz drastically flipped the run-pass ratio in the second quarter, calling 15 passes to one run.
The team restricts access to assistant coaches after games, so a Martz explanation likely won't be heard for several days. After combining for 207 yards rushing at Carolina last week, Matt Forte and Chester Taylor ran 12 times against the Seahawks for 42 yards.
"You can talk all day we'll take the blame," said left tackle Frank Omiyale.
There's plenty to go around, obviously.
The club's thinking coming into the game was it could plug in Chris Williams -- who had been out since Week 2 with a pulled hamstring -- at guard as a fill-in for injured starter Roberto Garza (knee) without missing a beat in run blocking or pass protection. Williams entered the season as the starter at left tackle, but it's clear he wasn't the upgrade the club anticipated inside at guard.
"We've got young guys; I'm a young guy," Chris Williams said. "We just have to raise our level. We've just got to do a better job of letting Olin know what's going on. We had a chance to win the game, and we didn't. I don't think they ran anything too exotic."
What the Seahawks did, though, proved sufficiently effective. Babineaux sacked Cutler on Chicago's opening drive of the second half for a safety, which likely triggered another play-calling meltdown by Martz, who sent in eight pass plays and only one run to finish the quarter as the Seahawks held a 16-13 lead.
Despite all the struggles (0-for-12 on third down), the sputtering rushing attack, and the line's continuing to risk Cutler's health, it appears the Bears are intent to continue experimenting up front rather than nailing down a permanent starting five as soon as possible.
"We are going to continue to tweak our entire football team," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "This was a combination that we worked for the first time today. The reason we went with that option today, we felt pretty good about it."
Cutler probably doesn't.
Still staring down at the tape he continued to kick at on the floor, Cutler finally looked up when asked how the shuffling along the line plays into the seemingly endless protection issues while inhibiting the team's ability to find a rhythm.
"There's going to be a learning curve with those guys. You would like to see an offensive line all the way through training camp, and get to know each other in the preseason. Then, you get into the season and learn from there," Cutler said. "We haven't had that luxury, which is difficult on those guys, but they've got to do it. That's part of the NFL. We've got to figure it out."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.