By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Far too often, offensive line play is simply noticed by the bare result. Either the quarterback is upright and the running back has holes, or the protection is failing.
Judging an offensive line by just the basics would be wrong. It’s a discredit to such a complex beauty to the game of football. Great offensive line play can function like a ballet, with five guys synchronized in their actions. A tackle holds off the end, a guard pulls to seal the edge, the center holds down the middle and the play is executed properly.
Finally, the Bears have an offensive line to be reckoned with. Years of plugging in pieces like Legos may be over. What makes the play of the Bears’ line impressive is the way it’s been done through changes.
“It’s just a continuity in one of the ultimate team games,” Bears coach John Fox said.
The Bears’ line looks much different than it did during the preseason. In August, Hroniss Grasu was preparing for his second season at center, and Cody Whitehair was learning as a left guard. Josh Sitton was a Packers Pro Bowl guard. The young unit had plenty of question marks. Its prospects weren’t good.
Then Grasu got hurt. Sitton entered in Week 1, moving the rookie Whitehair from guard to center. Both have played at a Pro Bowl level, and right guard Kyle Long — who’s playing through a shoulder tear — has worked admirably at his position. Bobby Massie and Charles Leno Jr. have been consistent at tackle. Only Leno remains at his position from last year.
When both Long and Sitton were forced to miss the Bears’ game against the Vikings on Oct. 31, reserves Ted Larsen and Eric Kush stepped in, and the line didn’t miss a beat.
“There’s a lot of communication that happens between offensive linemen during the game,” Fox said. “Even once they know the play, just the communication based on what front the defense is in and some of the schematic things that you do.”
Such a bond between these linemen starts in the locker room. The Bears have a tight-knit group. Long trains with Massie during the offseason. Long helped recruit Sitton to Lake Forest, a move that’s paid dividends. Leno, a seventh-round pick in 2014, and Whitehair, a second-rounder in 2016, are reserved guys who have emerged this season.
Reserves like Larsen, Kush and Mike Adams fit well in their roles and prepare as if they’re the starters. They also mesh with the rest of the group, making this five-man unit feel deep. Their close nature is evident.
“The thing about linemen is that we’re all kind of weird in one way or another,” Kush said. “That works well together. We all embrace each other’s weirdness.”
Added Long: “We got a group that just gets along. We mess around together, we yell at each other, we joke around together, everything.”
The collective personality of this line has helped it through what could’ve been a tough situation. Sitton and Kush joined the group the Sunday prior to the opener and fit right in. Whitehair showed no issues moving to center. The line has kept improving throughout the season, even to the point where Larsen and Kush excelled against one of the NFL’s top defenses in the Vikings in the Bears’ upset win.
Coaches Dave Magazu and Kevin Mawae, a future Hall of Fame center, are key pieces to the line’s growth. Magazu is a demanding coach who gets the best of his players. Mawae, who retired in 2009 after a 16-year career, has been a tremendous influence, especially for the rookie Whitehair.
The collective development shows.
“It’s time and experience,” Fox said.
Quarterback Jay Cutler recently cracked a smile when asked to compare this offensive line to some from his past. He was surely thinking back to the revolving door of replacement-level players who helped create a physical toll on his body. This season, the line has allowed just 14 sacks in eight games, which ranks among the league’s best.
Rookie running back Jordan Howard has shown great patience in finding the right hole to hit, and his line keeps offering rushing lanes. Howard has averaged 5.1 yards per carry behind his line.
But don’t judge this offensive line by the stats. Watch the way it works as one and the personality reveals itself on the field. That’s offensive line play at its best.