The Chicago Bears' offensive line may be new, but it's hardly improved, at least not if its play in Saturday night's preseason-opening 10-3 victory is any indication.
The performance in that game could pave the way for a change in the starting lineup.
On their first four pass plays, Bears quarterbacks were sacked three times, Jay Cutler once and backup Caleb Hanie twice.
The Bears ran nine plays in the first quarter and netted two yards. On the one dropback when Cutler was able to get rid of the ball, it was only after he scrambled away from the rush and underhanded a shovel pass to Matt Forte for no gain.
With new starters at four of five positions, the offensive line is a work in progress, and accordingly it played the entire first half. Hanie was sacked for a third time late in the second quarter by Spencer Johnson, who beat right guard Lance Louis, who was responsible for two of the Bills' sacks.
Offensive line coach Mike Tice said several days before the game that Saturday night's starters would remain in their spots unless someone faltered. Consider Louis to have faltered.
"I think I played below-average," Louis said. "I can't afford to do that. I definitely have to go back to work and get better."
So, the Bears could move center Roberto Garza back to right guard, where he is more comfortable and has been entrenched for most of the previous six years. That would pave the way for the logical insertion of Chris Spencer at center, a move that should have been made shortly after he was acquired, the day after negotiations fell apart with Olin Kreutz.
The guess here is that the Bears didn't give Spencer a $6 million, two-year deal to back up Garza, who has played center in just one regular-season NFL game in 10 years, but is a more than reliable guard who had a solid season in 2010.
On the Bears' third possession, and with the Bills' first-team defensive line still in the game, they drove 52 yards for a touchdown. That score was mostly the result of strong running by Marion Barber, who carried six times for 37 yards behind strong run blocking by the O-line, which has at least shown that it can be a presence in the ground game.
In the competition for the backup job behind Matt Forte, Barber is off to a huge lead over Chester Taylor, who averaged just 2.4 yards per carry last season. In fact, the competition may already be over. Taylor carried three times for three yards against the Bills, while Barber banged for 45 yards on seven attempts. Barber was able to get several yards after contact, and he showed quickness and elusiveness to go with his violent style.
Third-team running back Kahlil Bell was impressive playing with and against backups. He carried 13 times for 73 yards and caught two passes for 46 yards, making Taylor's chances of sticking with the Bears even slimmer.
The Bears are also trying to sort out playing time at wide receiver, but they have yet to make much progress there. For now, Roy Williams and Devin Hester are the starters, but they will use different groupings for different plays, utilizing Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox extensively. The Bears will also frequently use three- and four-WR sets.
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