Maybe the Bears' offensive line isn't that bad after all.
It's still a work in progress and, after the regular season, center Olin Kreutz is the only one of the five starters who will be going to Hawaii, where the Pro Bowl is played. But that's only because he lives there.
Still, the improved performance of the offensive line played an integral role in the Bears' three victories in 12 days, which vaulted them into first place in the NFC North at 7-3.
In all three of those victories, the Bears ran the ball for more than 100 yards, and quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked just five times after going down 19 times in his previous three games.
"I think the offensive line is coming together," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "Obviously that's critical, particularly with all the sacks that we had early on."
Those are welcome words for a unit that has gotten very little love this year, even from the most devout Bears fans.
"We knew coming into the season that it was said we'd be the weak link," said Kreutz, a 13-year veteran and a six-time Pro Bowl pick earlier in his career. "We knew that people were waiting to say, 'I told you so,' and we knew by our performance that people would say, 'I told you so.' But we're sticking together, and we keep improving little by little. But by no means are we happy where we are. We want to get better and better and better and play our best ball late in the year."
There are still some chinks in the offensive line armor, and a few more speed bumps along the way are inevitable. Rookie right tackle J'Marcus Webb was penalized for holding three times Thursday night. In his defense, Webb was at times left one-on-one with outside linebacker Cameron Wake, who had one of the Dolphins' three sacks, giving him an AFC-best 9.5. The Bears' seventh-round pick would agree that Wake is a pass-rushing terror.
"You could say that," Webb said. "It's definitely a little bit of my fault. [I had] technique issues, but I got them readjusted and had a better second half. I just need to keep my pads down and be a little bit more aggressive. You can't sleep on the guy. But I had a better second half and helped us win."
It says something about the Bears' confidence in Webb that they left him alone against Wake at all, although that might not have been the wisest strategy.
Coach Lovie Smith, who was otherwise in a triumphant mood after the game, was a bit terse when asked if the game plan called for not providing any help for Webb in one-on-one pass-rush situations vs. Wake.
"The game plan was for him to play the tackle position," Smith said. "Sometimes he will be on his own. You have to eliminate some of those mistakes, but he is getting better."
The same can be said for the entire group. Frank Omiyale is looking more comfortable at left tackle each game, Roberto Garza is back at his familiar right guard spot after missing two games following arthroscopic surgery and Chris Williams is adapting to the move from left tackle to left guard.
Thursday night was the third straight game in which the Bears used the same five players at the same five positions, something that did not happen in the first seven games. Continuity and coordination among all five players is critical on the O-line, but the Bears' improvement up front is more than several individuals playing as one.
"First of all, you start with [offensive line] coach [Mike] Tice," Kreutz said. "He's as good as there is in the business, and we keep believing in what he's telling us, and we keep trying to do that, and then we hang together as a group."
Their resolve was tested early, when the offensive line struggled to the point where Cutler could have sued for non-support. The line appears to have emerged from that adversity as a stronger unit, but there were growing pains.
"It was definitely hard," Kreutz said. "But that's where coach Tice comes in, and that's why they brought him in. He kept us believing in what he's saying and trusting in what he tells us to do, and that's what we're trying to do now."
As a result, the Bears may have the front line that will lead the offense through the remainder of the season and, they hope, into the postseason.
NOTES AND QUOTES
In the three weeks since their bye, the Bears have run the ball more than 30 times in each of three games, all of which were victories. In the two games heading into the bye, both losses, the Bears ran the ball a total of 30 times. Speculation is that pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz may have been given a suggestion to balance his play-calling.
"I'm not going to say it that way," Angelo said when asked if Martz was given some play-calling suggestions over the bye. "Mike is new to the players. Obviously, Mike has expectations of what he wants to do with our offense. But you have to play games to know what you can and can't do. You have to protect the quarterback, and we need to do things differently than maybe what we wanted to do early on.
"But we adjusted. That's the great thing about coaches: They do what they have to do, not necessarily what they wanted to do. Mike and the whole staff adjusted very, very well, and our players are more comfortable now. So, hopefully we're going to see that and our offense will grow, as it has." ...
Smith isn't usually one to make a big deal about individual records, but there is one he's looking forward to: the all-time kick-return touchdown record of 13 that Devin Hester currently shares with Brian Mitchell.
"We have talked to the team about it," Smith said. "We all realize where Devin is and that he has a chance to do something no one has done in the history of the game. All of our players that are part of those return teams realize that, too, that they can be a part of history, too, and we want to get it for him. I don't talk a lot about individual goals, but this is one... we want to get that record for him."
Hester is returning kicks with all the confidence he showed his first two seasons, when he took 11 to the house. And that confidence is contagious.
"He's confident all the time," special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "Every time he touches the ball. [Last week], he got in the huddle during the kickoff returns and said, 'Meet me in the end zone for the celebration.' That kind of lifts everybody up, when they hear that coming from a returner."
Hester nearly broke a punt return midway through the first quarter but was tripped up by punter Brandon Fields after a 24-yard gain. He also had a 34-yard punt return called back because of a penalty. But that was as close as he came, being forced to make three fair catches. He also caught four passes for 41 yards. ...
After catching a 14-yard pass in the second quarter, Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a former teammate of Cutler's on the Broncos, flipped the ball at his former quarterback and received a 15-yard penalty for taunting.
Marshall, the Dolphins' leading receiver, left the game late in the first half with a hamstring injury and did not return.
Smith was asked if the stunt by Marshall fired up his team.
"We don't need that to fire us up," Smith said. "We were fired up when we took the field."
Cutler said: "Brandon's a competitor, and I was getting after him earlier in the game. Before the game, I was telling him he wasn't going to be able to catch any balls. He was just fired up." ...
Team leader Corey Graham's 15 solo tackles on special teams are more than double Garrett Wolfe's second-place total of seven, and Toub believes Graham deserves Pro Bowl consideration.
"He's right on track," Toub said. "He had two more tackles last week, and he was our point production leader again. He's playing at a Pro Bowl level in my opinion, and I'm sure in a lot of other coaches and players opinions around the league, too."
Graham was credited with one special-teams tackle Thursday night.
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