Monday, August 8, 2011

The Bears Offensive Line: Talking Myself Off of the Ledge

So Mike Tice has declared the starting five combination that he wants to take into the season opener against the Atlanta Falcons. That starting five consists of J'Marcus Webb at left tackle, Chris Williams at left guard, Roberto Garza at center, Lance Louis at right guard, and Gabe Carimi at right tackle. Now that starting five doesn't really appear to be inspiring much confidence in most people because four of those give gentlemen were on last year's roster during the 56 sack-a-palooza and the fifth guy is an untested rookie.

Now, dear reader, I understand your concern because, well, I myself have been shitting solid bricks over Jerry's inactivity regarding the offensive line during free agency. While I think the team truly will be better at the center position with Chris Spencer rather than Olin Kreutz (although Garza at center is at total wild card, the man's not a bad player and is bigger than Kreutz so he could do just fine there), I too am not sold on the idea that the Bears can count on Webb, Carimi, Louis, and Williams ALL to pan out. Unfortunately, however, help doesn't appear to be on the way. Those are the guys you're stuck with, so here's why you and I shouldn't start drinking Clorox, or something.

1. The biggest offender of 2010 is no longer in the lineup.
Funny thing about last year. After Chris Williams went down in week two against the Cowboys, Frank Omiyale moved over from right tackle to left tackle and stayed there for the rest of the season. After that we were force-fed horseplop about how Omiyale was "surprisingly solid" at left tackle blah blah blah. Omiyale allowed 13 sacks last year, by far the highest total of anyone on the team. Hell, Orlando Pace allowed 3 sacks in 11 games in 2009, for comparison, and while raw sack totals are sometimes flawed and Orlando allowed a hell of a lot of pressure overall, Omiyale sucked and let no one tell you otherwise. While Frank was certainly an improvement of Chris Williams/Kevin Shaffer at left tackle in the run game, he was still in my opinion the weakest link of the unit and he's been relegated to the bench, hopefully for good. That's a bonus.

2. They're bigger.
Mike Martz's offense calls for five big, beefy offensive linemen who can hold their own in the passing game. Olin Kreutz as a 292 pound center was a poor fit, and moving Garza to center in order to get greater size at both center and guard makes sense. As it stands right now, that starting five combo of Webb, Williams, Garza, Louis, and Carimi would average about 312 LBs per man. Hopefully that size alone should cut down on some of the interior penetration which caused so much trouble last year. If this group can simply fall down and make a mess of things in the middle and allow Cutler to scramble outside of the pocket, well, that's an improvement over the disaster that was the first half of last year.

3. The unit that ended last season is not the unit that started last season.
There are a lot of enduring, painful images of last year's offensive line that have us all sweating balls about this group. It's worth noting however that the unit that ended last season was far different than the unit that was responsible for debacles like the 10 sack game vs. the Giants, the 6 sack against the Seahawks, and the 4 sack games against the Lions and the Redskins. The Bears opened the season last year with a left-to-right alignment of Chris Williams, Garza, Kreutz, Louis, and Omiyale and got the following results:

-Chris Williams at left tackle was a disaster, and he went down in week two with an injury shortly after getting pantsed by DeMarcus Ware on consecutive possessions. That forced Omiyale over to left tackle, where he was only an improvement compared to Chris Williams, and sent Kevin Shaffer in at right tackle.

-Kevin Shaffer blew and was absolutely shellacked by the Giants (2 sacks, 2 false starts in just 1 start), so he was benched after one start for J'Marcus Webb at RT.

-Roberto Garza struggled with a knee injury early on before he missed two starts after surgery. In his place Edwin Williams was less than spectacular, allowing 1 sack and several pressures in two starts.

-Louis played well, but it was hard to tell between the overrated mediocrity of Olin Kreutz and the general suckitude of Kevin Shaffer. Louis missed one start due to injury and then was lost in the shuffle after Chris Williams returned to play left guard.

The Bears didn't settle on a group of five that lasted more than one game until the eighth game of the season against Buffalo. After that, things got better:

First Seven Games: 31 sacks (4.4 per game), 89 yards rushing per game, 18 PPG
Last Nine Games: 25 sacks (2.7 per game), 111 yards rushing per game, 23 PPG

So the Bears have now replaced two weak links on that much less embarrassing second half offensive line (Kreutz, Omiyale) with Roberto Garza at center and Gabe Carimi at right tackle. Will it work? I don't know, but there's reasons ot believe it can and will, but there's also little reason to fear a regression to last year's nightmarish first half numbers. At the very least this a group that should be able to run the ball effectively.

4. There's Some depth.
Chris Spencer isn't currently in the starting lineup, and I do believe Tice when he says he'd prefer to go into the season with Roberto Garza at center. Roberto has been a quality linemen (except in the four games last year before his knee surgery) in his time for the Bears and a move to center could prolong his career. He also knows the Martz playbook and all of the line calls and seems to be handling center well after a rough start to camp. And hell, if he botches a few snaps, has a couple false starts, and maybe can't handle a shotgun snap real well, it's not like he's any worse than vaunted leader Olin Kreutz in that department. However, Garza can always move back to guard to replace either Louis or Williams if either of them falters, and hopefully by that point Spencer will be ready to step in at center. Spencer's also got an entire 16-game season of experience at guard under his belt, so the Bears may go that route if need be.

The simple fact of the matter is that the Bears didn't score the big-name free agent linemen that we (and they) were hoping for and now they have to hope one of their young guys can play better than whatever over-priced, lower-tier free agent they could bring in at this point. If you're asking me, I'd say Carimi will be in improvement over the Omiyale/Shaffer/Rookie Webb combo at RT, while it won't take much from Webb to be an improvement over Omiyale at left tackle. Garza can probably handle center, and I'm high on Lance Louis.

My biggest worry is Chris Williams, but I'd say that the worst case scenario for the Bears at this point would be marginal improvement over last year's second half-numbers (the acquisition of Matt Spaeth, who HAS to be a better blocker than the Manu/Olsen combo of last year, should help as well), while anyone fearing a retreat back to the full-on CutlerRape of the first half can probably cease the pants-wetting. As for the best case scenario? I don't know. If Carimi and Webb can be what Mike Tice believes they can be, this could be one very good offense. If not, well, they could probably survive another year with an offensive line like the one they took into the playoffs last year, just not the offensive line they took into the Meadowlands.

Or they could be fucked, in which case somebody's getting fired, and that's always fun, no?