Hoge’s Notebook: Offensive Line Struggles While Rookies Shine
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By Adam Hoge-
SOLDIER FIELD (CBS) Asked earlier this week what he wanted to see in the Bears’ preseason opener against the Broncos, offensive coordinator Mike Tice said he wanted a clean game.
That’s not what he got.
Instead, he got an awful fumble by Michael Bush, penalties and repeated blown up plays at the line of scrimmage.
Head coach Lovie Smith didn’t bother to sugarcoat it: “We didn’t play as well as a I thought we would tonight,” he said.
The offensive line was inconsistent at best and the Bears offense managed just three first downs — two on penalties — and 41 net yards in the first half while being shutout by the Broncos defense for the first 30 minutes.
The Bears lost 31-3.
Is it time for panic in Chicago?
Absolutely not. Thursday’s contest was a mostly worthless preseason game and Jay Cutler and Matt Forte didn’t even play. Brandon Marshall played one series and caught the only pass thrown to him for four yards. Plus, Tice wasn’t going to show his hand with the plays he called. The numbers don’t really matter. In fact, they should be thrown out.
But the individual play of a select few does matter. So here’s what came out of Thursday night’s preseason loss at Soldier Field:
Offensive Line Shaky
All the talk will be about left tackle J’Marcus Webb after this one. He committed another false start penalty, something that definitely won’t sit well with Tice. The offensive coordinator has repeatedly said that Webb needs to eliminate the mental mistakes from his game. Webb also allowed a sack and Tice pushed him by playing him into the fourth quarter. How many left tackles are still playing when the fourth string quarterback — in this case, Matt Blanchard — is in the game? That’s clearly a message from Tice.
“I don’t think of it as a punishment,” Webb said after the game. “I gotta get better and if he asks me to stay in then I will.”
Asked if he knew he was going to be staying in the game that long, the left tackle avoided the specifics.
“I didn’t look at it that way,” he said. “I think of it as a time to get better. I’m a young player and if the team needs me to stay in, then I will.”
Webb didn’t exactly “win” the left tackle competition and if he doesn’t improve quickly, it will be interesting to see if undrafted rookie James Brown starts to get more reps with the 1s. However, Brown came in with about eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and allowed a sack too.
Overall, the pass protection Thursday night wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t horrible. What was more alarming was the run blocking. There were no holes open for Michael Bush and Kahlil Bell and the Bears managed just 11 rushing yards in the first half.
“Offensively we weren’t able to establish anything with the run and the protection wasn’t as good,” Smith said. “We’re not ready for primetime yet, but we’ll hit the practice field as soon as we can and starting making the necessary improvements.”
Left guard Chris Spencer was especially bad, allowing a sack and getting absolutely no push in the run game.
“You want to go out there and obviously do a better job than we did today,” center Roberto Garza said. “We’re not happy with what we did and obviously we have to do better.”
Top Picks Shine
The Bears’ first three draft picks made general manager Phil Emery look good for at least one game. Shea McClellin still struggled to beat anyone 1-on-1, but he showed off his closing speed with a sack of Caleb Hanie when Hanie tried to slip out to the right. McClellin also forced Hanie to throw the ball out of bounds at one point and overall had a solid performance, but was flagged for roughing the quarterback in the second quarter.
“It felt good to get that sack,” McClellin said. “Especially early on. It definitely helps your confidence.”
The rookie said training camp is starting to get a little easier, a good sign after he came out of the gate struggling.
“I thought Shea McClellin did some good things tonight,” Smith said. “Anytime it’s your first (game) and you get a sack as a defensive lineman, you’ll remember that.”
Lovie also singled out the performance of second-round pick Alshon Jeffery. The rookie worked primarily against backups, but he had a nice performance, finishing with four catches for 35 yards. Jeffery ran crisp routes, used his body well to seal off the corners and didn’t make any mistakes. He looked good with Josh McCown at quarterback, so how good will he look with Jay Cutler?
Third-round safety Brandon Hardin was also active and had a chance to make a really nice interception downfield but couldn’t quite hold on when he collided with the receiver. Lovie always stresses the importance of takeaways and said the defense had three balls in their hands they could have had. Those are the type of plays that can make Hardin stand out, but he looks pretty good so far.
Paea Gets Start
Second-year nose tackle Stephen Paea has had a great camp and was rewarded with the start over Matt Toeaina Thursday night. They switched the first few series so the battle is not over yet, but Paea appears to have a leg up.
Corey Wootton started in place of Julius Peppers who was held out presumably because of the bad weather. Lightning pushed kickoff back about nine minutes.
Overall, the No. 1 defensive line didn’t get much of a push and tackle Henry Melton was especially quiet, getting stuffed on almost every rep.
Linebacker Depth Looks Good
Brian Urlacher was not at Soldier Field Thursday as expected, but the Bears still showed off some depth at linebacker. Lance Briggs only played one series, but Nick Roach was fine in the middle and Geno Hayes was very active, at one point tipping a Peyton Manning pass that tight end Jacob Tamme still managed to catch. Reserve linebacker J.T. Thomas also looked good.
Play Of The Game
There wasn’t much to choose from, but Shea McClellin’s sack of Caleb Hanie was impressive. McClellin was stopped at the line of scrimmage but was able to shed his block when Hanie left the pocket and tried to escape to the right. Hanie had tons of room, but McClellin closed very quickly and took him down. The rookie still has a ways to go, but he at least showed off what the Bears saw in him when they drafted him.
After ending an impressive Peyton Manning drive with an interception at the goal line, safety Major Wright left the game with a hamstring injury. Lovie Smith called it a “tweak” and said Wright was scheduled to come out of the game at that point anyway. The safety said it just tightened up on him.
“It felt great,” Wright said about the interception. “It feels like the right way to start the season off. I’m confident. I feel like I know what I’m doing. I’m just ready for the regular season to kick off.
Elsewhere, cornerback Jonathan Wilhite was shaken up on a kickoff return in the second half and Corey Wootton went to the sideline in the first half with an apparent right leg injury but it didn’t seem too serious. The Bears like what he is doing and he just needs to stay healthy.
Other than the interception, which was thrown slightly behind the intended receiver, Peyton Manning showed hardly any rust… Former Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker looks like he’s going to be very dangerous with Manning at quarterback… Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman only played one series… The Bears’ first drive of the second quarter featured three straight completions by Jason Campbell to Kahlil Bell, Kellen Davis and Dane Sanzenbacher, but somehow did not result in a first down… Defensive end Cheta Ozougwu and defensive tackle Nate Collins are both battling for a spot on the roster and looked good… Rookie cornerback Isaiah Frey was guilty of a defensive holding penalty and failed to down a punt inside the five yard line when he had the chance.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.