3 CHICAGO BEARS

September 04, 2011

A shaky line puts a return to the playoffs in serious doubt

In few training camps this summer could you make a statement as definitive as this one: The Bears, who reached the NFC Championship Game last season, will go only as far as their offensive tackles will take them.

A defense that was tied for third in the league in turnovers forced, fourth in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed returns nearly intact, with the chief departure being free-agent safety Danieal Manning. On offense, former Cowboys wideouts Roy Williams and Sam Hurd are in, and tight end Greg Olsen is out. Call it a wash. Though Olsen is an offensive weapon in the eyes of most personnel men, coordinator Mike Martz likes his tight ends to serve as extra blockers, not downfield receivers.

Which brings us to quarterback Jay Cutler's brace of 23-year-old personal protectors: 6'8", 333-pound left tackle J'Marcus Webb, a seventh-round pick from West Texas A&M in 2010, and 6'7", 316-pound right tackle Gabe Carimi from Wisconsin, a first-round choice this year. Playing mostly on the right side, Webb was part of a porous (to put it mildly) position in Chicago last season. According to the website ProFootballFocus.com, the Bears' tackles (starters Webb and Frank Omiyale, backups Chris Williams and Kevin Shafer) were responsible for 25 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 98 hurries—the worst performance in the league.

So in the off-season, line coach Mike Tice went looking for help, and he didn't have to go out of his way to find it. In visits to see his son, Nate, a backup quarterback at Wisconsin, Tice was transfixed by Carimi. "Very, very tough kid," he says. "I knew he'd be able to handle the pressure and the demands of being a tackle in this league right away." Chicago took Carimi with the 29th pick, and Tice immediately envisioned him on the right side instead of the more exposed left, which will lessen expectations on him as a rookie. Martz, after scouting Carimi, said he was "as good a run blocker as I've ever seen come out of college football."

That meant shifting the more athletic Webb to protect Cutler's blind side, even though Webb struggled last season after being picked as a project. "We knew how bad he was going to be early because he had so far to come," says Martz. "And he was terrible early. But he was spiking up in the last eight games. He's more comfortable on the left, a more natural left tackle, so the move was the logical one to us."

In the preseason opener against the Bills, Chicago allowed four first-half sacks, two of which came as Webb struggled to block Buffalo's outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. Afterward, explaining his performance, Webb said he hadn't matched Merriman's intensity. That answer did not sit well with Tice. At all. "He's got to understand we put a world of weight on his shoulders," Tice says. "He needs to step up and play better, and he needs to grow up quicker. He's out on the island with our philosophy this year, hoping that we don't [have to] keep backs in and chip. He needs to buck up."

There's no other way to spin it. Handing the toughest position on the O-line to the 17th tackle taken in the 2010 draft is one of those calculated risks that will keep Tice, Martz, coach Lovie Smith and G.M. Jerry Angelo awake nights until they see Webb do the job well week in and week out this fall. Will Martz help by keeping in extra tight ends? Sure. But there are going to be moments early and often when Webb will find himself one-on-one against some fearsome pass rushers: John Abraham of the Falcons in Week 1, Clay Matthews of the Packers and Jared Allen of the Vikings twice, plus the Eagles' Trent Cole and Kansas City's Tamba Hali. Those five players had 62 sacks among them in 2010—a load for any left tackle, never mind one who's just learning the ropes.

Webb has good feet and a good punch with strong arms. What he doesn't yet do is apply the same effort snap after snap. Against that schedule of sackers, he'll have to.

Webb is a smart kid—Angelo says he scored 1,300 on the SAT out of high school ("That's the old SAT, out of 1,600 points")—who understands what he's facing. "I don't let the pressure get to me," Webb said after the Buffalo debacle. "I focus on improving every practice. I've done that this week after what happened against the Bills. I've blocked it all out after last week's game. I'm operating on Coach Tice's six P's: Perfect Practice Prevents Piss-Poor Performance."

Webb sounds convinced he can shoulder the burden. "When the lights come on and it's time to compete," he said, "I'll be there."

If he's not, it could be lights-out on the Bears' playoff hopes.

PROJECTED LINEUP

WITH 2010 STATS

OFFENSE

2010 Rank: 30

QB JAY CUTLER

ATT 432

COMP 261

PCT 60.4

YARDS 3,274

YD/ATT 7.58

TD 23

INT 16

RATING 86.3

RB MATT FORTE

ATT 237

YARDS 1,069

REC 51

TTD 9

WR JOHNNY KNOX

REC 51

YARDS 960

AVG 18.8

TTD 5

WR EARL BENNETT

REC 46

YARDS 561

AVG 12.2

TTD 3

WR DEVIN HESTER

REC 40

YARDS 475

AVG 11.9

TTD 4

TE KELLEN DAVIS

REC 1

YARDS 19

AVG 19.0

TTD 1

LT J'MARCUS WEBB

G 14

SACKS 10½

HOLD 4

FALSE 2

LG CHRIS WILLIAMS

G 13

SACKS 4½

HOLD 2

FALSE 2

C ROBERTO GARZA

G 14

SACKS 6½

HOLD 4

FALSE 2

RG LANCE LOUIS

G 16

SACKS 1

HOLD 0

FALSE 0

RT GABE CARIMI (R)

G STARTS

13 13

RB MARION BARBER

ATT 113

YARDS 374

REC 11

TTD 4

WR ROY WILLIAMS

REC 37

YARDS 530

AVG 14.3

TTD 5

DEFENSE

2010 Rank: 9

DE ISRAEL IDONIJE

TACKLES 48

SACKS 8

INT 0

DT HENRY MELTON

TACKLES 13

SACKS 2½

INT 0

DT ANTHONY ADAMS

TACKLES 37

SACKS 2

INT 0

DE JULIUS PEPPERS

TACKLES 54

SACKS 8

INT 2

LB LANCE BRIGGS

TACKLES 89

SACKS 2

INT 2

LB BRIAN URLACHER

TACKLES 126

SACKS 4

INT 1

LB NICK ROACH

TACKLES 11

SACKS 0

INT 0

CB TIM JENNINGS

TACKLES 54

SACKS 0

INT 1

SS MAJOR WRIGHT

TACKLES 19

SACKS 0

INT 0

FS CHRIS HARRIS

TACKLES 70

SACKS 0

INT 5

CB CHARLES TILLMAN

TACKLES 82

SACKS 0

INT 5

DB ZACKARY BOWMAN

TACKLES 28

SACKS 0

INT 0

SPECIALISTS

K ROBBIE GOULD

FG 25

FGA 30

XP 35

PTS 110

P ADAM PODLESH

PUNTS 57

GROSS 42.6

NET 37.8

BOLD: Projected starter

Italics:New acquisition

(R) Rookie: College stats

TTD: Total touchdowns

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

SACKS: Sacks allowed

HOLD: Holding penalties

FALSE: False starts

2011 SCHEDULE

2010 RECORD: 11--5

September

11 Atlanta

18 at New Orleans

25 Green Bay

October

2 Carolina

10 at Detroit (Mon)

16 Minnesota

23 Tampa Bay*

30 BYE

November

7 at Philadelphia (Mon)

13 Detroit

20 San Diego

27 at Oakland

December

4 Kansas City

11 at Denver

18 Seattle

25 at Green Bay

January

1 at Minnesota

* in London

COACH: LOVIE SMITH

Age: 53

EIGHTH SEASON WITH THE BEARS (63--49)

A strong and soft-spoken Texan, Smith took his share of criticism in the last four seasons before guiding the Bears to the NFC title game. "He's perfect for us," says linebacker Brian Urlacher. "He knows what buttons to push, and when." Though Smith leaves the offense to coordinator Mike Martz, he isn't afraid to stick his head into Martz's office and tell him what he wants done. Solidly entrenched.

SPOTLIGHT

ROY WILLIAMS, Wide receiver

He entered the league with the Lions as a savior, was traded to the Cowboys as a star and now returns to the NFC North as a failed big-money player trying to revive his career. In 39 games with Dallas over the last two-plus seasons, Williams caught just 93 passes, and there were questions about his hands and his desire. Still, the Bears wanted to provide quarterback Jay Cutler the sort of big target he had in Denver with Brandon Marshall, so they signed the 6'3", 215-pound Williams to a one-year, $2.5 million deal in July after the Cowboys cut him. He didn't get off to the best start: The seventh pick out of Texas in 2004, Williams was made a starter on Day One of training camp, displacing third-year wideout Johnny Knox. But Williams's mediocre conditioning and persistent drops opened the door for Knox to win back his job.

Still, Williams will get more chances with coordinator Mike Martz, under whom he went to the Pro Bowl with the Lions. No Chicago receiver had more than 51 receptions in 2010, and the team was 30th in the NFL in total offense, defying the odds by making it to the NFC Championship Game. And Williams is playing for his future. There's much riding on the outcome of this shotgun marriage—along with improved play from the tackles, Williams's ability to connect with Cutler will determine whether the Bears will be in the playoff hunt again.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (SMITH) PHOTORICHARD A. BRIGHTLY/ICON SMI (WEBB)A LOT TO HANDLE Chicago is moving Webb, a seventh-round choice in 2010 who had a rough time at right tackle as a rookie, over to the even more critical left side. PHOTOSCOTT BOEHM/GETTY IMAGES (WILLIAMS)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)