CHICAGO -- The Bears know they are going to go as far as the right arm of Jay Cutler takes them. The men assigned to protect him are an entirely different story: The Bears have no idea what they have there. That is a real problem and the preseason is the time to try to solve it.
Without the line doing its part, Cutler won't be able to operate and get his new toy, Brandon Marshall, the football downfield. The Bears are apparently resigned to addressing this the old- fashioned way: With extra work and a lot of sweat.
Even if they are pushing their linemen hard early this preseason to find some answers, though, their hope for internal solutions is not going to come easy.
Week 1 of the preseason, an embarrassing 31-3 thrashing at the hands of Peyton Manning and the Broncos last Thursday night at Soldier Field, only raised more questions for arguably the most criticized offensive line in the NFL.
Usually the opener is a brief sweat and a shower. Heck, Cutler didn't play because his wife just had their first baby the day before. But, the starting offensive line played into the second quarter, including 12-year veteran center Roberto Garza, and projected starting left tackle J'Marcus Webb played until the fourth, long after the other starters were removed.
It certainly sent a message the Bears mean business about correcting the one major flaw this team has offensively.
"Just some players we thought needed reps, we needed to see," head coach Lovie Smith said. "And our tackles are two of them and we wanted to get them a lot of reps as much as anything. Just practice time, improving our ball club.
"Some of the guys we know a little more about right now we didn't play as much."
This is also a very important preseason for starting right tackle Gabe Carimi, a 2010 first-rounder out of Wisconsin, who missed all but six quarters of last season due to a major knee injury. He is healthy now and might be one hope for improving this group. His health and effectiveness can have a trickle down effect on the rest of the line.
"We've been flip-flopping guys a little bit to try to find the group," said backup quarterback Jason Campbell, who started on Thursday. "Those guys are working their butts off each and every day in practice and trying to get better."
The Bears know what they have in Cutler and running back Matt Forte, who also was held out of the game, which was played right after a torrential downpour and lightning storm. They need to find out more about how the line's pieces are going to fit together.
They couldn't have liked what they saw, even if they made a conscious decision to not show much in the way of game planning.
"We were a little off, but I don't think we opened up the playbook at all today, so we just have to start over and go back to the basics," said Michael Bush, who got the start for Forte in his Bears debut and lost a fumble on a failed exchange from Campbell.
"We definitely wanted to come out and run the ball better," said guard Lance Louis. "We have to do a better job of that because we really pride ourselves on running the ball well and we definitely want to protect [the QB] better. It was preseason Game 1, we're going to look at it and get better from here."
Webb, trying to solidify the left tackle position, allowed a sack to a backup defensive end and also was called for a false start the first play of the second quarter. It might have been the reason he was left on the field with second-stringers, third-stringers and future grocery store clerks. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice had Webb's back going into the game, but now he might find Webb difficult to defend as a locked-in starter.
"I didn't look at it that way," Webb said. "I think it was time to get better. I'm a young player and if the team needs me to stay in, then I will."
If your starting quarterback is your most important player -- like most teams -- your left tackle is a close second. Webb had the job apparently won going into the first game of the preseason, but he might have repositioned backup lineman Chris Williams to compete for it all over again. Webb had taken all of the first-team reps at left tackle leading up to the game, but Williams was seen splitting time at that spot with the first team in practice over the weekend.
This, clearly, isn't a case of the Bears having two potential starting left tackles as much as not having one good one.
"I've got to get better with knowing situations and getting better with the camaraderie with my fellow linemen," Webb said. "I also need to work on understanding what we're here to do, and that is to be explosive."
The Bears won't be explosive if they don't keep Cutler upright. He was sacked a league-worst 52 times in 15 games in 2010 and missed the final six games of last season to a thumb injury. Keeping him in the huddle is of the utmost importance. It will be the only way the Bears can complete with the likes of Aaron Rodgers' high-powered Packers and Matthew Stafford's Lions in the NFC North.
Cutler is 17-8 in his past two seasons as a starter. They can win with him, a healthy Forte and a happily fed new receiving target in Marshall. Marshall was the only one of that trio to play Thursday night against the Broncos (one catch for four yards), but that will change going forward.
"Running game wise, offensively wise, we weren't able to establish anything with the run and the protection wasn't good," coach Smith said. "We're not ready for prime time yet.
... "It will look a lot better when we get our guys out there."
They had better hope so, especially in the area of left tackle. Hard work only makes a difference when it starts generating results. Webb and company are going to get a lot of time this preseason to make that happen.