In Part I of Scouting Da Bears I detailed Chicago's debacle at Lambeau Field two weeks ago. Since then offensive coordinator Mike Tice has apparently squeezed some improvement out of the individual players who were among the chief culprits for Jay Cutler getting sacked seven times, including reaming LT Jamarcus Webb on the sideline of last week's victory over the St. Louis Rams. Webb's performance has slowly started to improve. The Rams pass rush, of course, while looking better is not quite in the same league as that of the Cowboys -- or the Bears pass rush that Tony Romo will have to find a way to avoid Monday night.
What gives me pause for this game is that entering this season, I thought I had a pretty solid evaluation of which teams were good and which would most likely struggle. Both the Bears and Cowboys entered the year with tough defenses and with their offensive lines as the expected limiting factor for their chances. The replacement refs may have thrown some things off with their blown call in Seattle or by allowing DBs to play more physical than the real refs would permit in the passing game. But it seems clear there has been a league-wide swing of the pendulum back towards defenses this year after 2011's Playstation-like numbers following the NFL lockout. Heck, even the Cleveland Browns showed plenty of fight against the Ravens in Thursday night's game.
In my previous FanPost I blamed the NFL owners for not permitting enough depth to be developed along offensive lines to keep up with the plethora of talented defensive linemen coming out, and hence the sudden rise of Arizona, Seattle and even the Tampa Bay Bucs to nasty if not championship contender status. In response, commenters like football mensa correctly pointed out that much of the blame for the apparent drop off in blocking this year should probably be laid at the feet of college coaches who love to run spread offenses against defensively overmatched teams. Many times offensive linemen who can get by with shoddy technique in the college ranks (except for when they're playing teams stacked with pro prospects like LSU, Alabama or Texas) get to the NFL and get completely manhandled in the pros.
O-LINES PLAYING DOWN TO DEFENSIVE LINES OR DEFENSES PLAYING UP?
What's even more maddening however than the gap between how long offensive and defensive linemen respectively are taking to develop right now is when a pretty solid prospect regresses. Let's face it, the Bears offensive line was never that good at pass blocking to begin with, they were decent at run blocking when the Bears went to the NFC title game and lost to the Packers in early 2011. In 2011 the Bears regressed and their 2012 o-line looks hardly better despite Mike Tice's efforts. If I were a Bears fan I'd be far more irate at the front office for thinking they'd solved the problem with skill position upgrades rather than drafting or signing any linemen. When you compare the efforts Dallas put into fixing the o-line including the signings of Livings and Bernadeau and the 'drafting' of top UDFA Ronald Leary you'd have to say the Cowboys put in more effort to at least patching their 2nd biggest hole before (hopefully taking some interior OL better than Arkin and Costa in) the 2013 draft. The problem is things simply aren't going according to plan right now, and tougher than expected defenses are part of it as documented by the OCC.
POTENTIAL MID-SEASON FIXES -- BEFORE ROMO LOSES ANOTHER SEASON TO INJURY
Everyone at BTB seems to agree that the Cowboys' problems up front start with $5 million per year right tackle Doug Free. He's looked horrible (though again in a shoutout to mensa, the Packers and 49ers lines stacked with high draft picks have not looked consistent either) and his horrid play has also exposed Mackenzy Bernadeau. Overall Bernie might've looked average if the right side were not being so easily attacked by every defensive coordinator we've faced since Seattle. If he doesn't improve and Derrick Dockery is not the answer watch for Costa returning to center or former Callahan (Jets/Chargers) player Colin Baxter being signed to play that spot, freeing up Ryan Cook to play RG (I DO NOT expect the return of Montrae "Lumpy" Holland given his liabilities in blitz protection). I don't know yet whether Parnell could handle bull rushers on the right side if Free has to be benched. But I do have some confidence in Cook's ability to step up at RG even if he's not quick-footed enough to play right tackle.
Once Garrett and Callahan get a bye they can start working on fixing some issues i.e. getting Jason Witten rested and the other TEs (especially Hanna) more reps with Romo, coaching up the o-line, and possibly bringing Mario Butler or Lance Dunbar up from the practice squad to improve special teams play and provide more burst than Felix Jones from the backup RB spot.
CAN THE O-LINE IMPROVE THIS SEASON? TWO REASONS TO HOPE - FREE and the CARDINALS
The issues with Free appear to be more about technique than a rumored bad back, and we should see at least moderate improvement this week after the unit nearly got Romo killed by the Bucs. I say this knowing full well the Bears d-line is both deeper and better at rushing the passer than the Bucs rotation, thanks to Julius Peppers and Henry Melton.
Looking around the league, we've already seen at least one o-line left for dead in the preseason show signs of life. I'm talking of course about the Arizona Cardinals offensive line. Despite looking abysmal in the preseason and losing one starting tackle in Levy Brown, the Cards took care of business against the Philadelphia Eagles fierce d-line last week at home (though they were helped by many Michael Vick turnovers leading to solid field position). If we could just get the kind of average offensive line play the Cards turned in against a very good Iggles pass rush, we should be a playoff team.
BEATING THE BEARS WHILE THEY'RE ON OFFENSE
Rob's Mob has been the no. 1 defense through week 3 but the turnovers simply haven't come in bunches yet. That I think is what's about to change Monday night. Having watched Jay Cutler through two and a half weeks (I only caught the first half of the Rams game) I think we're going to get to him early and often. Even if we don't the Bears playing max protect means their only viable go to options are Matt Forte or Michael Bush in the flats and Brandon Marshall. Mike Jenkins can take care of Marshall, judging by his shut down of Vincent Jackson last week. Orlando Scandrick and Mo Claiborne can handle Alshon Jeffrey and Earl Bennett when he sees the field. The Bears may try to roll out Devin Hester but Scandrick has the speed to match up well with him. That leaves Cutler holding the ball way too long, and likely taking sack/fumbles or throwing for Forte into territory patrolled by Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. The frustration is going to mount again on the sideline for Jay. Meanwhile, I hope Garrett will finally do enough playcalling (putting Miles Austin in motion or in the slot, more James Hanna, and intermediate comeback throws that enable Ogletree or Dez to use their size against the smaller Bears corners on first downs) to put a TD or two on the board.
I expect the Bruce Lee tandem to get at least one pick and a fumble recovery deep in Bears territory that should put the Cowboys in favorable scoring position. While I expect Dallas to end up settling for lotsa 3's instead of touchdowns, so long as we're putting points on the board and preventing the Bears from getting their running game going I'm not scared of Devin Hester singlehandedly providing the Bears offense via returns.
My prediction: Cowboys 20-Bears 13 in a game decided by Cutler turning the ball over two times more than Romo (3 vs. 1, 2 INTs and a fumble versus one Romo pick).