- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice kick-stepped into max-protection mode Wednesday in addressing rumblings about players struggling to absorb his supposedly ever-changing schemes, in addition to rumors of a possible rift between him and coordinator Mike Martz.
Tice called his relationship with Martz "fantastic", saying the two are working diligently behind the scenes to figure out "what we can ask the guys to do, not just on the O-line, but across the board."
As for Tice's schemes causing information overload along the team's inexperienced line, the coach said he's scaled back things somewhat, adding that last week's struggles weren't solely the fault of the front five.
"Nah, [that's not true]," Tice said when asked about protections creating confusion. "We actually didn't carry ... I've carried way in the 20s [in terms of pass protection schemes] wherever I've been: Jacksonville, Minnesota. We've got some young guys. This week was different than the Giants. We took turns around the block. Everybody had something to do with the sacks this week and the protection problems, where in New York we went into a street fight with the O-line and got our butts beat. This was a little bit more spread out."
Critics had said that the coach's extensive protections and his tendency to change them weekly, sometimes daily, created communication problems along the club's inexperienced offensive line. Assignments executed a certain way one week dramatically changed the following week, leading to the type of confusion the club experienced last week in giving up six sacks in a loss to the Seahawks.
Two weeks prior to that, Chicago gave up nine sacks in just one half against the Giants.
Bears coach Lovie Smith admitted Tice's protections change often, but said the moves aren't out of the ordinary, nor are rumblings about them in the aftermath of a loss.
"The protections do change up a little bit, but everybody does that," Smith said. "I can't say that that's [why] we had breakdowns with protections a lot [against the Seahawks]. That just really wasn't the case. There are rumblings every time you lose, there are. Every time things don't go the way you want, there are gonna be rumblings. I haven't heard any major rumblings on anything like that, except for what I saw from [watching the tape] that we all need to play better."
Center Olin Kreutz, who is responsible for making all the line calls, said Tice's extensive protection packages aren't an issue for the club to absorb. The unit simply needs to execute better.
"That's not true," Kreutz said. "People say injuries are a weak excuse, and we're not using it as an excuse, but we've had a lot of different guys in there. Ed [Edwin Williams] just got here from Washington, and when he got here, we pretty much had our whole offense in. So there's gonna be young mistakes with young guys. But they're not putting too much on us."
Many of the inexperience-induced mishaps against the Seahawks originated between Williams, a second-year player, and rookie J'Marcus Webb, who have started the past two games at right guard and tackle, respectively, and are slated to start again Sunday against the Redskins.
Tice displayed a sense of humor in outlining their struggles. When asked whether inexperience on the right side affected the line's overall continuity, Tice took it a step further, asking a question of his own.
"And when both of them don't say a word? You mean like the whole game? [It affects things] just a little," Tice said, laughing. "There's a reason why sometimes young linemen don't look like they know what they're doing because usually, they don't. On the field they don't speak because they're not positive they know what they know what they think they know they know. ('That sounded good, didn't it?' Tice said). Unfortunately, if they would just believe in themselves they'd be right, I'd say nine out of 10 times. We knew when we went with the young guys we were gonna have some of those pains."
Tice said Williams and Webb weren't to blame for all of the protection issues. But to speed their process of making corrections from that outing, Tice will have both go back over the game tape Wednesday night, take notes, and "tell me what he saw, how he could fix it, and see if he's seeing himself the same way I'm seeing him."
Several offensive linemen after the loss said the unit needs to do a better job of relaying information to Kreutz, who in turn, makes sure everyone knows their blocking assignments.
"Myself and J'Marcus, we're young guys," Williams said. "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. With us jumping in there, we have to talk more, and just tell everybody what we're going to do on each play so Olin knows everybody is on the same page, and can communicate to everybody -- running backs, quarterback, receivers -- so everybody knows."
Interestingly, in the minutes following Sunday's game, Kreutz placed the blame on himself for the line's struggles. Meanwhile, Kreutz's teammates blamed themselves for not getting the center the required information. Tice gave a glimpse of what can go down on a given play, which goes a long way toward explaining why communication is so paramount for an offense heavy on five- and seven-step drops.
"The center lines them all up, [and] then changes the calls. [But] there are times where different guys work to different guys [along the line]," Tice said. "There are some protections where it's only those five guys, and we're trying to sort out the five guys [on the defense] that we think are the most dangerous. When they're moving around and doing those things [to disguise looks], those five guys [on defense] change. Guys [on the offensive line] see them differently. [But] if you communicate, you can see it [all] the same. [But what could happen] is one guy sees it, doesn't pass it along, and it kind of hurts the mesh of things."
It's a situation Tice says he's spent countless hours trying to correct with Martz. It had been rumored that Tice and Martz hadn't been on the same page from a standpoint of game planning and philosophy.
Prior to joining the Bears, Tice played a significant role in building some of Jacksonville's dominant rushing attacks from 2007-09. Martz's preference for the pass, meanwhile, has been well documented.
Tice described their relationship as "fantastic, fantastic" adding that most of their interactions center on determining the capabilities of the players.
"[We're trying to figure out] what are we. What are we gonna be going forward?" Tice said. "We've had some great meetings throughout the course of the year trying to figure those things out. Sometimes we think we've got them figured out, then all of the sudden, this guy is hurt. Then it's, 'We've got this guy, what can he do?' So on and so forth."
Tice said the offensive line protected "pretty damned good" in the second half against the Seahawks. But it's important to note that quarterback Jay Cutler suffered four of his six sacks in the final two quarters, while throwing for just 102 yards after finishing the opening half with 188 yards passing.
Tice made it clear he wants to remain patient with the offensive line, despite the widespread scrutiny concerning the unit as it competes in a football-crazy environment the coach described as a "fish bowl."
"If Ed has a bad play, J'Marcus has two bad plays in a series, I can't start yanking them because then all of a sudden, where's that continuity?" Tice asked. "Now it's just a hodgepodge. Here we go, let's shuffle them. We did it in training camp the first week for a reason. We tried to settle in on a group, and then Chris [Williams] got hurt. So then we try to settle on another group, and Roberto [Garza gets hurt]. That's kind of the deal."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.
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