Thanks to a strong showing against the San Diego Chargers last week and the coaching staff's continued reliance on two rookies along the right side, the Chicago Bears appear to have finally figured out a working combination of starting offensive linemen for the 2013 season.
When the Bears open the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 8, the five starters from left to right will likely be Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills.
Chicago might actually find some comfort in those five.
The experiment to start both Long, Chicago's first-round pick in April's draft, and Mills, a fifth-rounder from the same draft, has received glowing one-game reviews.
Now, head coach Marc Trestman is ready to give the two rookies another start on the right side during the always-important dress rehearsal week of the preseason.
According to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, Long and Mills will once again start at right guard and right tackle, respectively:
“The right side of the line, we’ll keep it the same this week,” Trestman said. “There were enough good things that happened that we feel like we want to give them another opportunity to go out and play a little bit more against the first group and see what they can do.”
Barring injury, teams generally keep the the same starting lineups from the third week of the preseason for Week 1 of the regular season. At the very least, Long and Mills earned a shot to nail down those starting jobs to open 2013.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Long played 33 snaps against the Chargers and earned the best individual grade from a guard this preseason (plus-5.7). He didn't allow a pressure and received high marks in blocking for the run. Through two games, Long is the highest-graded guard in the NFL.
Mills wasn't as jump-off-the-tape good as Long, but he certainly held his own. The fifth-rounder from Louisiana Tech gave up just one pressure (a quarterback hurry) over his 33 snaps, per PFF. Like Long, he received his best grade in run-blocking.
Source: Pro Football Focus
Maybe the most impressive three-play stretch for the rookie duo came towards the end of the first quarter with the Bears 11 yards away from taking a 14-0 lead.
Chicago used three running plays—all to the right side of the offensive line—to punch in the starting offense's second touchdown.
On each of the runs, Long and Mills delivered the push up front. Matt Forte's four-yard touchdown run was certainly the most encouraging showing by his line.
In our first screenshot of the play, we see Mills blocking down the line of scrimmage while Long pulls to lead the play in the hole. Mills does his job and is already looking for a second-level block while it's immediately clear who Long needs to get a hat on for Forte to have a chance at the end zone.
The next screenshot shows the two rookies dominating at the point of attack. Mills has his linebacker engaged at the goal line (four to five yards upfield). Long is washing Jarrett Johnson, the strong side linebacker, completely out of the picture.
The result is a wide-open lane for Forte to slide through and score an easy touchdown. Mills and Long provide the clearing:
Overall, according to PFF (subscription required), the Bears rushed five times for 24 yards (4.8 yards/carry) to the right side with Mills and Long in the game.
If there was any glaring problem along the offensive line against the Chargers, it came on the left side. Bushrod, who signed a $36 million deal to be the Bears' new left tackle, was charged with a bad run early on. Later, he did provide the kick-out block for Forte's 58-yard scamper off a power sweep to the left.
Of the two sacks quarterback Jay Cutler took over 16 snaps, one was assigned to tight end Martellus Bennett, who was beaten cleanly off the left edge on the second offensive play. The other was assigned to Cutler, who held the football forever on third-and-long one play later.
Neither of the rookies were involved in either sack, which was fairly impressive given the fact that Mills was one-on-one with veteran Dwight Freeney on a number of snaps.
Who will be the Chicago Bears starting right tackle for Week 1 of the 2013 season?
The Bears are still a ways from being able to claim their offensive line as a strength, but it's clear the additions of Bushrod, Long and Mills have added some punch to a unit that has been lacking for several seasons.
If things again go to plan during Chicago's matchup with the Oakland Raiders on Friday night, there should be little question who the starting five offensive linemen will be to open the regular season. Long is now all but a lock to start at right guard while Mills was impressive enough in his starting debut to predict that he can hold off swing tackle J'Marcus Webb for the right tackle spot.
In fact, the Bears might have already showed their cards at right tackle when Biggs reported on Sunday that Chicago agreed to a paycut with Webb, who slashed his base salary. The fourth-year tackle's 2013 compensation will now be more in line with a backup.
Webb did allow a sack in the preseason opener, which opened the door for Mills to steal his job.
The Bears will have nearly three weeks to get their five starting linemen the needed reps and experience playing next to each other.
If the two rookies continue progressing on the right side, and the addition of Bushrod settles the blind side, the Bears may finally have a starting offensive line that can keep Cutler alive in 2013.