With a couple smart signings and some excellent drafting, the Bears have built a top-tier offensive line. Though it’s likely to have at least one change heading into 2017, the strong performance of the unit in 2016 bodes well for the future – and reminds us of the awful past.
Starting from a dismal offensive line season in 2010, the Bears have embarked on a roller-coaster ride to their current position, with one other great campaign in 2013 standing out from years of injuries, revolving door positions, and overall incompetence.
With the help of my incredible Microsoft Paint skills, we’ve created a visual representation of the journey as well.
A year after being greeted in Chicago by a pedestrian offensive line, Jay Cutler had a much worse experience in 2010. By a wide margin of six, the Bears offensive line was dead last in the league with 56 sacks given up. Although Cutler’s patience may have inflated that number, it would have been dismal regardless.
Additionally, the unit wasn’t proficient in aiding talented running back Matt Forte, as Forte and the other running backs could only earn an average of 3.9 yards per carry that year, good for 23rd in the league. In 2013, with an elite offensive line, Bears’ runners averaged 4.5 yards per carry, which is immensely better with the same running back at the helm (Forte). Clearly, the offensive line had a huge diminishing effect on the running game.
According to NFL.com, the Bears left side of the line was much better in the run blocking game. Frank Omiyale and Chris Williams set Forte up well there, as they allowed only 17 negative rushes, to go along with a 2nd-best mark of 28 rushes over 10 yards. In comparison, the right side of the line, with future center Roberto Garza and a developing J’Marcus Webb, yielded 27 negative rushes and led only 17 rushes of 10+ yards.
Injuries to multiple linemen caused some shuffling here, and I couldn’t show just Chris Williams at left guard, since Edwin Williams only played two less games, with 7. This represents a “for-the-most-part” illustration of what the line looked like throughout the year.
2011 was a mild rebound year for the Bears’ offensive line, as they jumped to 27th in the league in sacks allowed with 49, and their rushing average leaped to 9th in the league at 4.4 yards per carry. Again, the left side of the line appeared better in the run game, as with nearly the same amount (26/27) of rushes over 10+ yards, Webb and Williams’s surrendered 17 less negative rushes than their right-side counterparts, which was usually Chris Spencer and Lance Louis. On the bright side, Garza seemed to find his niche in 2011 at center, as he would remain their for the next four years.
Statistically, the Bears offensive line made little progress in 2012, despite the majority of their lineup looking different than the previous year. The youngster Gabe Carimi slid Lance Louis over from tackle to guard, while the left guard spot was occupied by multiple players but most often Chilo Rachal. Jonathan Scott and Chris Spencer filled in at various positions at well. However, the “depth” the Bears had in mixing and matching positions was not ideal, as it wasn’t a choice between good players, but between bad and/or injured players. Consequently, the Bears finished 25th in sacks allowed with 44 and 14th in rushing average with 4.2.
In a slight reversal of years past, the right side of the line fared better in the rushing attack than the left. Louis played well at right guard, and Carimi was worthy enough to start 14 games. Those two and their substitutes earned numbers of 15 negative rushes and 24 rushes of 10+ yards, while the left flank, with inconsistency especially at guard, had 21 negative rushes and only 19 runs of double-digit yardage.
With new faces at all four flank positions, the Bears offensive line was totally revamped and rejuvenated in 2013, as they skyrocketed to 4th in the league in sacks allowed with just 30. Similarly, they improved to seventh in the league with a mark of 4.5 yards per carry.
The drafting of Kyle Long paid immediate dividends, as the rookie exceeded expectations in his first year. Thinking pessimistically, it’s fair to point out that their number of QB hits barely improved. However, even if Cutler was getting hurried just as much, the depletion of sacks meant significantly less long-yardage situations and wasted downs. Fortunately, none of the starters missed much time to injury, so lots of the success can be attributed to the health of the group.
Finally, the Bears achieved some balance with this unit. The negative and long-yardage numbers were essentially identical for both sides of the line (19/20 negative runs, 27 10+ yard runs). With massive shakeups all around him, let’s not forget to commend Garza on anchoring the line at center for yet another year.
The first noticeable regression during this span came in 2014. With Slauson absent from eleven games due to injury, his replacement, Michael Ola, could not adequately replace Slauson. In addition, the other starters missed a total of 10 games, which had to be picked up by players like Brian De La Puente. As a result of all this, the Bears finished 19th in sacks allowed and 16th in rushing average.
Like the prior year, they had no side playing clearly worse than the other, as the negative rushes and double-digit runs tallies were almost identical on the right and left.
Now slowly ascending the long roller-coaster of their progress, the Bears quietly improved on the offensive line in 2015. Reducing their sack total from 41 to 34, and maintaining a rushing average right around 4.0 yards per carry, it appeared that the several new faces had no trouble in meeting the bar set by their predecessors.
Most impressive about this feat is that it came as a result of consistently altered lineups and continued injuries. Although Ducasse didn’t even start a majority of his games at right guard, he started most at guard, and since Slauson played most of his games at left guard, something had to be off here. Although this switching up messes up my ability to accurately portray the lineups using Microsoft Paint (Damn you Bill Gates), it certainly didn’t deter the players themselves much.
Uncannily, the left-side and right-side numbers I’ve been citing (negative and long runs) were almost identical for this year as well. After three years of proving your line is balanced for both flanks, it makes it tough for defenses to try and capitalize on one weakness, since you don’t really have any.
A key component of this was Long’s capacity to play both guard and tackle, which he proved in 2015 as he stepped up on the outside after two years getting comfortable at guard. The effect of this was that the Bears’ surplus of guards did not create a logjam.
Boy, we’ve come a long way from the beginning of this mess. Even with three new names, different from just 2015, the Bears offensive line managed to return to their 2013-level elite status, as they finished 7th overall with just 28 sacks. In addition, with rookie phenom Jordan Howard taking over the load at running back, the line paved the way to a stellar 4.6 yards per carry mark.
Cody Whitehair, originally drafted to fill a guard spot, adjusted remarkably to center after Hroniss Grasu went down for the season with a torn ACL. Offseason pickups Josh Sitton and Massie fit in just fine as well. Disappointingly, Long missed half the season due to injury, but Ted Larsen and Eric Kush were right there as backups.
All of the 2016 starters remain with the Bears for 2017, so it’s possible that for the first time in ages we have identical lineups for Week 1 of consecutive years. With Whitehair gaining experience as time goes on, and quality veterans surrounding him, the future is bright for the Bears’ offensive line.
Considering that’s not something we could have said seven years ago, give credit to the front office for eventually getting it right. Hopefully that success can bleed into other areas where the Bears require much, much improvement.