It can be said it’s damning with faint praise when you mention how well a player is playing or a unit because of the coaching, but in this case it appears to be justified. Particularly when you talk about the Bears Offensive Tackles. Now, I have been a Charles Leno jr. defender. I think he has taken way too much abuse from Bears fans and some ignorant media members particularly in the sports radio genre. I actually think He’s played pretty well, however, I would never call him a top level tackle. For a 7th round pick and the way he’s played at the value of the position he has well exceeded expectations. He’s been an elite type run blocker especially in a zone scheme where athleticism is paramount while being average as a pass blocker. This season, all that has changed. Leno has been an elite Left Tackle thus far through five games into the season with dramatic pass pro improvement in his technique and his play.
Leno has actually not surprised me. I figured there’d be an uptick in his play based on the addition of Harry Heistand and the hiring of Head coach Matt Nagy and Offensive Coordinator Mark Helfrich and their high tempo well designed plays that incorporate a short game to help their tackles. That along with Leno’s skill set suggested he’d be better but I never figured all pro type level which he has played at. However, the real surprise is the play of Bobbie Massie.
Massie was a guy I was running out on a rail ever since his arrival. I didn’t want him when he was signed and I soured on him even more after watching his dreadful play at Right Tackle. Especially against speed off the edge where he was a dead duck if he did not receive doubles and chip help or slide protection. But after watching him closely this season through the first four games he has been nearly flawless in pass pro. It’s just an amazing transformation. Not sure how sustainable this is, but if he continues to play this well I’d have to seriously consider extending him before the end of the season. Even with Rashaad Coward emerging as the Bears future Franchise Right Tackle. This way, they can continue to develop Coward’s game while maintaining competition at that spot to avoid production drop offs and have great depth in case of injury or said performance drop off.
As for the interior of the line it was always the strength of the unit Even before Heistand arrived this season. Kyle Long is the star of this interior group and he has not disappointed after finally being healthy for the first time in a long time. As a matter of fact I’d even say he has never looked better through 4 games. Long is another guy I questioned on whether the Bears should keep. All the injuries have piled up and with his advanced age it scared me, but it’s looking like the Bears faith in Long healing and staying healthy has paid off thus far. We’ll see if in fact it can be sustained. He’s already come up gimpy on that ankle of his, but it appears he has the ability to play through the pain. His pass protection has been nothing short of flawless and his run blocking devastating as he has served up more pancakes than IHOP.
The interesting position that appears to be evolving as the season progresses is over at Left Guard. In game 4 versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the Bears gave their first of two second round picks, James Daniels, his first significant action and he did not disappoint. He looked athletic, smart and above all powerful even serving up a pancake block. Eric Kush split time with Daniels and has played very well himself but you can tell he is not nor ever will be an elite level guard other than as a swing interior player where he is elite as a backup playing at an average to above average level at all three interior positions. However, if this line wants to evolve into one of the leagues elite lines it must eventually insert Daniels as a starter. It appears it will be at left guard this season but I still would not discount Daniels eventually switching with Cody Whitehair and becoming the teams franchise Center moving forward likely next season if at all. After all, he thrived at center in college and was tabbed by many to be the best center prospect in a very good draft for Centers and interior linemen.
Speaking of the aforementioned Whitehair, it appears as though he will be the Bears Center this season as he knows the position and Mitch Trubisky and he are very close on and off the field. Making Trubisky comfortable is the top focus for the Bears as it should be. It also appears that Whitehair’s shotgun snaps have improved. While it’s very possible the Bears can be contenders with Trubisky playing at an NFL average level because of how well the Bears Defense and special teams have been playing along with their normally potent Running game, (more on that later in this article), but in order to have a chance to play at an elite level and be able to keep up with the top teams in the league their Quarterback will have to play up to the level of the elite Quarterbacks in the NFL. Especially for sustained success throughout the league. In order for this to happen the Offensive Line will have to maintain it’s level of protection that Trubisky has enjoyed thus far.
As a unit Heistand has these five players working cohesively as one. The communication has been top notch and aside from elite size and athleticism the members of this line appears to have an elite cerebral game as well. It’s especially impressive given the fact they’re in a new offense together and an offense that has some complexities to it. It’s something that I recognized before the season and even wrote about how this offense could produce early because of the cerebral level of the players the Bears have targeted. Here’s the link if you’re curious. – Offensive Learning Curve May Not Be As Sharp For Bears As Most Seem To Think.
The running game has gotten off to a slow start because teams have loaded up for it and dared Trubisky to beat them. It has worked to a certain point as the Bears offense has been less productive than the Bears would like it to be through their first 3 games. However, that actually shows just how strong the Bears pass protection has been. With the box loaded for the run and those bodies being sent on blitzes once they see the drop back for the pass the Bears have still been the top team in pressures allowed per Pro Football Focus as you can see at the top of the page. Even as one the most heavily blitzed teams especially in obvious passing downs.
With the recent breakout game by Trubisky where he hit a ton of passes downfield that should loosen defenses up a bit. They have to at least have it in the back of their minds that they might give up a strike downfield if they snooze. I fully expect the game plan to be the same versus the Bears as it has been, but if they hit some deep early in games I expect teams to back off. Once Trubisky and the offense show consistency you will see that defense back off and play more straight up and than you should see some prodigious running numbers.
The Bears are currently 9th in rushing yards per game average thus far so they aren’t exactly pathetic. Top 10 is pretty good, however, Trubisky running for a good portion of them distorts the effectiveness of the running game statistically. It’s good to have a Quarterback who can make a play with his legs when the opposing defense has you beat, but you don’t want it to be a huge part of the offense unless you want your starting Quarterback taking massive hits in the open field.
The good news is they don’t have to be as good on offense if this team plays as well defensively and on special teams but with that type of formula Running the ball is usually married to it. Running the rock has to be a point of emphasis with this team starting yesterday.
Now, they are a little better as far as average yards per run goes at 4.2 which ranks them 9th but as stated earlier a lot of that is coming from the designed and some not designed runs from Trubisky running for a lot of yards with a ton of green grass in front of him. Tarik Cohen is doing well too with a 5.1 average but Jordan Howard at 3.2 is unacceptable and has to improve. Another area that needs improvement is rushing Touchdowns. Only 2 thus far ain’t gonna cut it. One of the reasons for their failure in the red zone early is because the run game has been unable to push the pile and punch it into the end zone.
They have been among the best with explosive run plays. They have the 4th most 20+ yard runs in the league to this point. That’s with one less game played than most teams too, but the total at this point is only 3 at this early stage of the season so that’s not a trend yet. the consistency of plus running plays needs to spike dramatically from the backfield. Something Heistand has been hired to figure out and one I’m sure he’s hard at work to figure out as we speak. It will be interesting to see how they have addressed the issue coming off the bye and if it has been fixed and can sustain throughout the season. As mentioned earlier it’s probably more of how the passing offense produces that will open the running game to the production that we all have come to expect from the Chicago Bears.