The Chicago Bears offensive line has once again struggled to open the season.
Chicago entered this year with high hopes for the line. Prior to the start of the season, head coach Lovie Smith told Larry Mayer of chicagobears.com:
"You look at every offensive line in the NFL and there aren't five All-Pro linemen there. We feel like our offensive line is as good as any other out there."
But after just a few short weeks, a very different picture has begun to form. Cutler has already been sacked 11 times this season, good for 28th in the league. He's been hurried and hit even more often, and it's rare that he gets time in the pocket to set and make a good throw.
Though fans are hoping that the line problems are just temporary, it's much more likely that they're here to stay. Here's why.
The Bears offensive line has had trouble protecting Cutler for quite some time.
Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The Chicago Bears must be insane, because that's exactly the way they've approached their offensive line.
Jay Cutler has been sacked an astounding 86 times over his past 28 starts—an average of a little under 3.1 sacks per game. The league average in sacks allowed per game was 2.2 in 2010 and 2.3 in 2011. That’s almost an extra sack per game that the Bears line is giving up.
And yet, the Bears have done very little to upgrade their line over the past few seasons. Sure, they’ve moved some guys around, but this is essentially the same group of guys that Bears fans have watched struggle to protect Cutler in seasons past.
There simply isn’t any reason to think that this year will go any different than past years have. There’s something to be said for continuity, but too little time spent playing together isn’t the problem for this line. They’re just not that good.
If a performance like the Week 2 abomination against the Green Bay Packers was unusual, then there would be reason to expect improvement. But giving up huge sack totals has become the norm for the Bears. Heck, in 2010 they gave up 10 in a game against the New York Giants.
The Chicago offensive line hasn't performed well for over two years now, and there’s no reason to expect that to magically change this season.
Cutler's tendency to hold onto the ball can make it tough on his offensive line.
This obviously isn’t the offensive line’s fault, but it's a big problem in terms of pass protection, so it merits mentioning. Frankly, Jay Cutler is spending way too much time with the ball in his hands.
Admittedly, some of that also falls on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Mike Tice, who has called for Cutler to take a lot of deep drops recently.
ESPN’s Michael Wilbon addressed that problem after the Packers game, writing:
“Meanwhile, it's fair to question Mike Tice's judgment, given the promises of quick-strike passes that were rarely if ever called Thursday night. Why have Cutler take deep drops if the line can't hold off the Packers' pass rush?”
Tice did a better job calling plays last week against the St. Louis Rams, mixing in a lot of quick drops. But it remains to be seen if that will continue over the course of the season.
And even if the play calling is questionable, Cutler has to know to get rid of the ball. After all, he understands the Bears’ offensive line woes better than anyone. Not only has he taken the hits, but he’s also gotten pretty upset at their recent play.
Cutler needs to help his linemen out every once in a while and get rid of the ball quickly. But he won’t. It's just not his style. For better or for worse, Cutler likes to hold onto the ball and try and make plays downfield.
Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. But it certainly doesn't make the job of his linemen, who have to try and hold blocks for much longer, any easier.
Cutler’s not going to change his passing style overnight. By the end of this season, he'll probably still be holding onto the ball for a bit too long. Unfortunately, that doesn’t bode well for the Bears offensive line.
Matt Forte's injury is a big blow to the Bears struggling offense.
That’s not a good sign for Jay Cutler.
Forte has an injury-riddled history, and he missed four games last year due to injury. Bears fans were hoping that he’d be able to get through this season unscathed, but it appears that injuries could once again be a big problem.
The Bears signed former Oakland Raiders back Michael Bush this summer, so they’re not completely unprepared for Forte to be out.
But the problem is, though Bush is a great backup, he’s simply not the dynamic runner and receiver that Forte is. He’s a powerful back and is able to fight for tough yards, but he’s a lot easier for defenses to plan for than Forte is.
Unfortunately, if the ground game isn't working very well, it just means more 3rd-and-longs for the Bears offense to face. Third-and-long situations are when defenses tend to really bring the pressure, which isn’t a good sign for Cutler and the Bears’ offensive line.
The Chicago line was overwhelmed by the Packers’ blitz-heavy defense in Week 2. Obviously not every team has a pass-rusher like Clay Matthews, but it’s still a big point of concern for the Bears.
If Forte can stay injury free after the Chicago bye week in Week 6, he could relieve a lot of pressure from the Chicago line. But it’s hard to imagine, banged up as he is, that he’ll be at 100 percent through the rest of the season. And that means a lot more blitzes for the Bears offensive line to face.
Maybe the line can work all of these issues out—it's certainly possible. But that’s a lot to ask over the course of one season. Expect them to struggle all year long.