The game of football is won in the trenches - and it can just as easily be lost in the trenches. The Chicago Bears had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season. They gave up 44 sacks, eighth-worst in the league, but they gave up far more pressure than teams even lower on the list. Those struggles cost the Bears a shot at toppling Green Bay for the NFC North title as well as a ticket to the playoffs for the second season in a row.
One of the biggest problems for the Bears is that Jay Cutler has struggled under pressure. Cutler had a 69.8 rating under pressure last season, according to Pro Football Focus, compared to an 86.4 rating when not pressured and an 81.3 overall rating. He's very accurate, has a strong arm and knows where to put the ball, but he was under such constant siege in recent years that he's had a tendency to crumble and, consequently, put up some really poor games.
Just how bad was the Bears line last year? Here's a closer look:
The Bears had the No. 29 passing offense in the NFL last season, with Cutler completing just 58.8 percent of his passes for 3,033 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Cutler has always been a streaky quarterback, with the ability to put up three touchdowns or three interceptions on any given day. Instability on the offensive line certainly doesn't help that tendency.
As a team, Pro Football Focus gave the Bears a -22.2 grade for pass blocking overall, which was the fifth-worst in the league by their reckoning (behind the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers and aforementioned Cardinals).
The only real consistency came with center Roberto Garza, who started all 16 games at center and left tackle J'marcus Webb, who played in all 16 games at left tackle. Garza wasn't very good, and Webb wasn't a whole lot better, of course, but at least they weren't rotated around like everyone else. Gabe Carimi started 12 games at right tackle and guard, while Jonathan Scott starting eight on Cutler's right side.
It's no surprise that the cumulative pass block rating of the tackles from PFF was just -8.73. That's a terrible rating, drawn mostly from Carimi's -20.3 rating in pass block alone. The tackles gave up 15 sacks and 73 quarterback hurries all on their own.
The guards were shuffled around plenty, as well. Chris Spencer started six games at left guard and four at right guard. Rachal played eight games at left guard and Lance Louis played 11 games at right guard. The interior linemen (meaning Garza is included) put up a cumulative pass block rating of -0.65.
There's also the intangible factor of sacks allowed by the quarterback. Make no mistake about it, Cutler was not comfortable behind the Chicago line, and was constantly rolling out and possibly making matters worse on himself.
When it comes to running the ball, the Bears had an effective rushing offense last season, with 123.1 rushing yards per game, good for No. 10 in the NFL. Matt Forte carried the ball 248 times for 1,094 yards with five touchdowns and a per carry average of 4.4 yards.
Of course, much can be improved with the running game, too. Going back to Pro Football Focus, the Bears' offensive line was given a positive grade when it came to run blocking, with an assigned rating of 4.0. That seems good in comparison to the passing numbers, until you note the fact that the San Francisco 49ers had the highest rating at 150.4.
The 4.0 given to the Bears puts them at No. 19 in the NFL. Chicago's tackles combined for an average score of 2.1 in the run blocking, thanks solely to the positive 9.1 rating for Gabe Carimi. The guards and center combined for an average score of -4.35, an abysmal ranking to be sure.
In other words, Forte put up 1,000-plus yards (many felt he had a down season on top of that) with a run-blocking line that was absolutely poor at its worst but generally middle-of-the-pack for the most part. In essence, Forte is the Chicago running game, or at least he was in 2012. While the pass protection definitely needs to improve, the team would be in a much better position if Forte wasn't having to consistently fight at the line of scrimmage.
So once the team missed the playoffs (after losing three of their last five games) and had a long time to evaluate where things are, the Bears set out to address the O-line this offseason.
Overhauling the Line
With multiple positions needing a change, the Bears brought in two likely starters in free agency: left tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Matt Slauson. Both Bushrod and Slauson are expected to grab starting roles. Bushrod is the left tackle of the future with his large contract, while Slauson was slated to start at left guard prior to the 2013 NFL Draft.
The Bears selected Kyle Long out of Oregon in the first round (20th overall). The Bears made it clear after the first round of the draft that they envision Long as the team's starting left guard.
While some might feel that Long was a reach at No. 20, Bears general manager Phil Emery ranked Long as the most athletic guard in the last 12 drafts. That's high praise from Emery, given that he's been involved in coaching and scouting for for over 30 years.
Chicago also added another key piece to the line in the draft, taking Louisiana Tech tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round (163rd overall). Mills has an uphill climb to land a starting job, but he's already a very polished lineman and might be able to compete for the job at right tackle.
J'Marcus Webb and Jonathan Scott would be Mills' primary competition at the right tackle spot, but neither of these players will inspire much confidence, so Mills could be a starter sooner rather than later.
If the Bears have a poor offensive line in 2013, it won't be for a lack of effort on the front office's part, as they've brought in potential replacements for nearly every piece of the puzzle. Bushrod, Slauson, Long and Mills all hope to contribute to an improved offensive line next season.