The Chicago Bears offensive line has been trashed in recent seasons, with fans decrying its inconsistency, disorder and inability to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Although there are definite needs to be addressed, the outlook is sunny for the front five in 2012 for several reasons.
Firstly, if one looks at the numbers, the o-line is improving in some respects. For example, Jay Cutler was sacked 49 times in 2011, fifth most in the NFL. However, this was an improvement from 2010, when Cutler was taken down a league-worst 56 times. The difference may be slight, but progress is progress.
Secondly, the Bears improved in the run game from 2010 to 2011; after finishing with a modest 1,616 yards in 2010, the o-line paved the way for 2,015 rushing yards last season, good for ninth best in the league.
Also, keep in mind the offensive line is young and continuing to develop chemistry. Considering the aforementioned strides in sacks allowed and rushing yardage, along with simply more experience, it’s natural to expect this improvement to continue. Veteran center Roberto Garza will continue to provide veteran leadership and lend guidance to tackle J'Marcus Webb.
One of the biggest problem spots in 2011 was J’Marcus Webb at left tackle. In his second season, he gave up 14 sacks and committed 13 penalties for 82 yards. Recently, however, sources announced Chris Williams, who played guard last season, will return to the tackle position, the role envisioned for him when he was drafted in the first round in 2008.
Despite missing time due to injuries, Williams has started 38 games the past three seasons and has demonstrated competence at both tackle and guard. He is capable of replacing Webb if needed.
Providing the biggest boost to the o-line, however, is Gabe Carimi. The 6’7”, 317-lb. behemoth was Chicago’s first-round selection in 2011, but only played two games after partially dislocating his kneecap. The tackle, however, has reportedly recovered and is ready to play.
He has enormous potential and will provide an immediate boost to the unit at the tackle position. Considering the track record of Wisconsin Badger lineman turned pro, there is no reason Carimi won’t adapt to the NFL quickly and smoothly. He will provide immediate stability and relief to a troubled unit.
Also, coaching adjustments paint a favorable picture for the o-line. Former o-line coach Mike Tice’s ascension to offensive coordinator amid Mike Martz’s resignation should foster the growth of the line. Tice has witnessed the o-line’s struggles in his two seasons leading the unit, and he knows what it takes to alleviate the concerns.
His system will be predicated on a balance of run and pass tailored to the front five’s capabilities. Meanwhile, his offensive line coach Tim Holt is a proven success in the NFL. He coached two Pro Bowlers, Davin Joseph and Donald Penn, in Tampa Bay the last two seasons and oversaw a successful rushing attack. His fresh perspective will be fruitful.
Which brings us to the next major factor: the additions to the receiving corps. After producing a lackluster 3,011 yards through the air last season, Chicago boosted its aerial arsenal by drafting South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery, a physical specimen at 6’4”, 230 lbs., who should contribute right away.
Additionally, the franchise traded for three-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, who has been incredibly productive and will thrive in a reunion with his former Bronco teammate Cutler. Look for the two to develop into one of the best quarterback-wide receiver tandems in the NFL. Having Jeffery and Marshall at his disposal will make Cutler more confident and cause him to get rid of the ball quicker, giving the o-line greater margin for error.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of motivation. The Bears are sick and tired of hearing about how crappy their o-line is, and nobody is more dedicated to ameliorating the problems than the big men up front. They will come out hungry and motivated to regain their credibility and silence the critics.
Overall, maturation and the return of Gabe Carimi, transition to Mike Tice’s offensive scheme, the addition of key receiving threats and the general acknowledgment of the need for improvement will provide an effective recipe for Chicago in 2012. They may struggle with the competition in the NFC, but the offensive line will not be the team’s undoing, as it has been to an extent in recent seasons.