Fixing the Bears O-Line Won't Be An Easy Task- But It's Possible
Through the first five games of the season, the Chicago Bears offense has been abysmal. Their offense ranks 30th in yards per game, with only the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins trailing behind them. The debate this offseason wasn't, "Will the Bears offense be better or worse heading into 2019?", it was, "How much better will they be?" The Bears have not been able to run the ball whatsoever, and the lack of balance has put them in predictable situations. There are multiple reasons for the offense's inability to run the ball, but the old cliche, "it all starts up front," is more prevalent than ever. It's strange because the offensive line was supposed to be one of their strongest units. Their continuity, further understanding of the scheme, and new additions at running back were all supposed to be steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, that isn't the case, and it makes me wonder, is it the scheme or offensive line play?
I'll admit, the Bears offense is built to be a pass-heavy attack. They run a form of the west coast offense. It incorporates short and intermediate routes with high completion percentages. They want to get the ball to their playmakers in open space, and they had some success with it in 2018, but defenses have caught on. I have yet to see a team, "stack the box," against the Bears. Analysts say that the line has been better during pass protection, but Nagy also designs plays to get the ball out quickly. Defensive coordinators know this and have been running shallow zones with bracket coverage. This coverage takes away those short routes and dares the offense to run the ball or throw it deep. When Matt Nagy adjusts, the offensive line has not been able to get the job done. They haven't been able to hold a pocket long enough for deep routes to develop, and they aren't able to create running lanes, even against a lighter box.
The clip above shows why Matt Nagy says, "we need to win our one-on-one battles." You'll see there are only six people in the box. The Bears are on the right hash, running a bunch formation to the left. It's 2nd and 7, and number 59 is not an immediate threat against the run. He needs to hang back and make sure a receiver doesn't cross into his zone. That leaves five offensive linemen to block five defenders. The backside isn't asked to do much here. They only need to put a body on their man, which will allow Montgomery to hit the hole. Whitehair misses his cut block, and Massie attempts to seal his man, but the defender sheds him. Long is supposed to chip the defensive tackle and allow Daniels to position himself for another seal block. Then he needs to make his way up to the linebacker. If executed correctly, Montgomery shouldn't be touched until he reaches the secondary. Instead, he is met by three defenders at the line of scrimmage. Charles Leno and James Daniels were the only ones to execute their assignments on this play, and this is why it's so frustrating. I could breakdown more clips, but it boils down the offensive line's inability to execute assignments. Now the question is, can it be fixed? "I'm going to figure out the why part. I think I know," said Nagy in his latest press conference. Bears fans all hope he does. Otherwise, it's going to be a long season.
The Bears have little draft capital and less money, which is why they can't trade for any offensive lineman of substance. They'll turn to their own locker room in search of the solution. It breaks my heart to say this, but Kyle Long isn't the player he once was. Long has been one of my favorite players of the last decade. He's fought through injuries and has stayed dedicated to the team through some dark years, but it's time the Bears replace him. Ted Larsen is injured and isn't supposed to be back anytime soon, so the Bears will have to give the spot to someone with no starting experience. The two names that come to mind are Alex Bars and Rashaad Coward. Bars was recently was offered a contract by the New England Patriots, but he declined their offer. The Bears then promptly raised his pay to the veteran minimum. It's speculated that Bars wants to stay with his former coach Harry Hiestand, but there has to be a stronger reason for his decision. Why would a player stay on a practice squad instead of being an active member of a Super Bowl contender? It's almost a certainty that Bars will be on the active roster moving forward. The question is, will he get thrust into a starting role? It is possible, but I believe the next man up is Coward.
When Long was inactive for the Vikings game, Ted Larsen started in his spot. After Larsen went out with an injury, the Bears threw Coward in at guard. He's been a project since the Bears signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and moved him from defensive line to offensive line in 2018. The Bears see so much potential in Coward they have been storing him on the active roster so they wouldn't lose him to another team. He has raw athletic ability to go along with his overwhelming stature. There are some flaws in his game, but he is the Bears best option moving forward.
In this clip, you see why Coward is a better option than Long. You also see why he is considered a project. Coward has the speed and athletic ability to get to the second level, but he needs to work on his technique. In this play, the Bears line up on the left hash, and the play flows to the right. Coward pulls, chips the defensive end, and then makes his way to the second level. His initial contact is powerful, but he does not engage with the defender or drive his feet. In my opinion, this is fixable. As I said before, Coward is a project, and he won't be perfect, but his ability to get to the second level makes him a better option.
Another thing you will notice in the clip above is the Bears attempting to use a full back. Don't get me wrong, he does nothing special on this play, but I think signing a true full back will help them in the run game. Last year the running game wasn't great by any means, but it was much better than what we've seen in 2019. I think that has a lot to do with letting Michael Burton walk. All of the teams you see successfully running the ball carry a full back and use them regularly. It goes against Nagy's philosophy of being unpredictable, and you will see more players in the box, but that will also open up the intermediate passing game. I know Trubisky has struggled, but we have seen how running the ball effectively has helped young quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott. When the Ravens and Cowboys play with a lead and run the ball, their quarterbacks look like MVP candidates. When they don't, both quarterbacks struggle.
I don't want to write an article about the offensive line and avoid talking about Charles Leno Jr.'s struggles. Leno will continue to start at left tackle, but he needs to improve. At the very least, Leno needs to cut down on pre-snap penalties. He has been below average at best, but fans have to hope he can get it together. If not, it's possible Coach Nagy will move Whitehair to tackle and let Bars and Coward play the guards. It would eliminate all continuity, but then again, continuity hasn't done much for the unit so far.
Sometimes having an early bye week is seen as a negative, but the Bears couldn't have asked for it to come at a better time. Coach Nagy needs to make some changes and send a message to the rest of the offensive line. It's not like they'll become an elite unit overnight, but it can't get much worse than it already is.