By Dan Durkin-
Editor’s note: This is the fifth part in a series that takes an all-encompassing look at the state of the Bears’ roster. Click here to read breakdowns of the other positions.READ MORE: Man Dead, Woman In Critical Condition After Car Crashes Into Tree In Sauganash
(CBS) After finishing the 2013 season as one of only three teams to start the same five players up front for all 16 games, the offensive line was a presumed position of strength for the Bears heading into 2014. Unfortunately, their good health and continuity didn’t carry over this past season.
Injuries quickly hit the unit. Starting center Roberto Garza (right ankle) and left guard Matt Slauson (left ankle) were injured in the season opener against Buffalo. By the end of the season, all five opening day starters missed at least one start – Jermon Bushrod (knee), Jordan Mills (foot, ribs) and Kyle Long (hip) as well – and the team used nine different combinations.
Communication is an essential component of successful line play, both verbal and non-verbal, which is developed on the field and in the film room. Offensive linemen watch countless hours of film together to determine which way they’ll slide, how and who will be double teamed and whether to gap or man block on stunts and a variety of other scenarios.
When that link is broken — let alone nine times over — it’s hard to develop chemistry and be the wall up front that the offense relies upon. Consequently, the Bears took a step back along their offensive line last season.
The Bears had both mental and physical lapses up front that proved to be costly for the offense.
False starts along the offensive line jumped from four in 2013 to 15 in 2014. Pre-snap penalties are typically lapses in concentration. But seeing that 10 of the 15 false starts were committed by Bushrod and Mills, these were also physical errors as both of them were too eager to get into pass rush sets after giving up the edge on previous plays.
Sacks went up from 30 in 2013 (the fourth-lowest total in the league) to 41 in 2014. Under then-coach Marc Trestman and then-offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, the Bears were a protect-first team, meaning they typically ensured they had their protection count right before releasing a running back or tight end into a route. However, edge pressure was an issue all season, which comes back to the play at offensive tackle.
Bushrod was the third-highest paid Bear and the league’s 10th-highest paid offensive tackle in 2014. As such, the team frequently left him on an island, and he was unable to hold up on a consistent basis. Bushrod is still an above-average player at his position, but he needs to play closer to his pay grade next fall.READ MORE: Cook County Reopening Mass Vaccination Site In Matteson Thursday; Forest Park Clinic Now Open
Mills was able to hold down a starting position for 16 games as a fifth-round rookie in 2013, but when you isolate him on film, he struggled. Those struggles carried over to 2014 and changed the Bears’ play-calling, protection schemes and took away eligible receivers. Since Mills was untrustworthy on his own, tight ends and backs were typically set to the right to chip, and the team also used a sixth offensive lineman in abundance.
One potential solution at right tackle may currently exist on the roster.
Long earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth and has emerged as one of the premier young talents in the league, a cornerstone player for the organization. Long is powerful enough to consistently get movement in the run game and also displays nimble footwork to mirror pass rushers. Such skills may tempt the coaching staff to move him outside, perhaps to right tackle so he can get adjusted before an eventual move to the left side.
Slauson was the team’s best offensive lineman in 2013 but suffered an injury-plagued 2014 season. The Bears missed Slauson’s ability to anchor and get movement on the left side of the line. Assuming he’s fully recovered from ankle and pectoral injuries, his return will be a boost to the group.
One player who proved to be valuable and versatile was Michael Ola, who made a start at every position on the line except center. Ola has nimble feet for his size, but coming from the Canadian Football League, he was overwhelmed at times by the speed and power of the NFL game.
At the end of the season, the Bears reached a one-year agreement on an extension with Garza. At this point of his career, Garza is a glue guy in a locker room that desperately needs it. On the field, the end is near for Garza, who was physically overpowered at times and struggled with the quickness of younger interior rushers.
Looking ahead, the Bears have all five starters plus Ola, Ryan Groy (who started three games at left guard) and Charles Leno Jr. returning. Versatile players like Eben Britton and Brian de la Puente, who the Bears can work on extending prior to free agency opening in March, are set to hit the open market.
Looking at how frequently the Broncos pulled guards and tackles in their screen game under John Fox and Adam Gase, athleticism is a plus. The Bears appear to be in good shape in the short term, but a long-term plan at center and adding an additional piece — depending on how Long is used — makes sense.MORE NEWS: Chicago Weather: Temperatures In The Teens Thursday
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.