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NFL: Bears' O-line is better, but is it good enough?

Bears offensive guard Kyle Long (75) argues with Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley as quarterback Jay Cutler lays on the ground during the second half Sunday in Chicago.
Bears offensive guard Kyle Long (75) argues with Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley as quarterback Jay Cutler lays on the ground during the second half Sunday in Chicago.

It’s a given around the NFL by scouts, analysts, “insiders” and fans that one of the biggest factors in the improvement of the Bears’ offense this year has been the offensive line.

It’s not a debatable point.

But, as the Bears begin their stretch run toward what they hope will be a spot in the playoffs, and as we think about next year, it’s important to know if this offensive line is good enough.

Josh McCown said he believes the unit has made significant strides, and he assigns a lot of the credit to coaching and team-building.

“Aaron Kromer and Pat Meyer do an outstanding job, and they’re really gifted teachers. I think they’ve [the linemen] done a great job of getting to know each other. It’s a strong bond in that group, and I think that matters, too. I think that’s shown up in the way they play and the way they approach their job.”

Marc Trestman is pleased with how far they have come, but acknowledges there still is work to do.

“I think we’ve been reasonably consistent in the pass protection game,” Trestman said. “We continue to improve, but we are still making mistakes. The young guys miss every once in a while in terms of which way to step and things like that.”

Referring to the meltdown of the running game and the two sacks and 11 hits Jay Cutler absorbed last week, Trestman warned not to make too much of the hiccup against the Lions.

“You know, last week wasn’t unusual, that’s something Detroit does to a lot of teams. They’re very effective up front,” he said.

Individually, there are no stars in this group yet. I’ve warned in this space about reading too much into the reports and grades of Pro Football Focus, but the service does have the same people observing every team, giving some value to its comparisons of players with their peers.

PFF rates Roberto Garza the 13th-best center in the league with a 2.4 rating. Matt Slauson is 14th at guard with a 6.7, while Kyle Long is 38th with a (-2.3). At tackle, Jermon Bushrod is rated 37th with a 1.7, and Jordan Mills is rated last in the league at 76th with a (-26.3).

Considering Garza’s age and the possibility Long might eventually project better at tackle, it seems a given the Bears still have a significant need in the draft and free agency to upgrade the talent at all three positions.

But the bottom line today is, after finishing 10th in the NFL in rushing but 27th protecting the quarterback in 2012, the Bears now are 15th running the ball and third best in the league at keeping their QB clean. That is a huge upgrade in pass protection, with minimal slippage in the run blocking.

Some of that’s improved talent, and some of it’s scheme. Eben Britton has been in on 106, or 18 percent, of the Bears’ 598 snaps on offense.

“Part of that came with Martellus’ shoulders [injuries] early in the year,” Trestman said. “That’s really when we made the transition. And it’s worked out well for us. [Britton] has value in both the running game and in pass protection, certainly, and we’ve been able to maintain some balance.

“A lot of it was just from a pass-protection standpoint, and it’s just been kind of an evolutionary process, but that could change as we move on.”

Before you suggest that sacrificing a receiver for a sixth offensive lineman has to hinder the passing game, consider the Bears finished 2012 29th in passing and 24th in average gain per pass play, while they stand at eighth and 10th in those categories, respectively, today.

All of this leaves no doubt Trestman knows what he’s doing with his offense, and that he has gotten everything out of this offensive line he can.

The big question now is how much more do these offensive linemen have to give?

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