To say outside expectations were low for the Bears' offensive line in the preseason would be a major understatement.
Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than the Bears' blockers.
A former NFL player who visited training camp practices at Oliver Nazarene University in Bourbonnais watched the group working on individual drills for several minutes and offered a common opinion: "Garbage, total garbage." Even observers who didn't condemn the group were concerned about the future of a unit that featured new starters at three of the five positions.
But as the Bears prepare for Sunday's rematch with the Lions at Soldier Field, they are tied for second in the NFL in scoring and at least respectable in most other major categories – including No. 11 in passing yards, No. 17 in rushing yards, No. 14 in total yards, No. 9 in third-down efficiency and No. 16 in sack percentage after allowing just four sacks in the past three games.
In the first meeting, Oct. 5, the line permitted just one sack and allowed quarterback Kyle Orton to throw for a career-best 334 yards while posting a personal-best 121.4 passer rating.
Much of the early skepticism focused on John St. Clair, the left tackle nominee who had started just nine games for the Bears in the previous three seasons – four at left tackle, three at left guard and two at right tackle. The 6-6, 315-pound St. Clair hadn't been a full-time starter since 2004 when he was with the Dolphins, and all 14 of his starts that season were at right tackle. St. Clair's only other season as a full-time starter was in 2002 with the Rams, when 13 of his 16 starts were at right tackle.
But the nine-year veteran wasn't cowed by the challenge of protecting the blind side of Orton.
"It wasn't really difficult from the aspect that I've been playing all these different positions, and I always said if I could concentrate on one position I think I could be efficient at it," St. Clair said. "And that's what happened."
So far, that task has included a matchup in the opener against Dwight Freeney, the only player in Colts history with four straight seasons of double-digit sacks, who had one sack against the Bears. He was followed by Julius Peppers, who is the Panthers' all-time sack leader with 56 in just six seasons but had none against the Bears. Then there was Gaines Adams, who leads the Buccaneers with four sacks this season and got one against the Bears. Next was the Falcons' John Abraham, who is second in the NFC with seven sacks – none against the Bears – and has four seasons of double-digit sacks, including 10 last year. And then there was the Vikings' Jared Allen, who led the NFL with 15.5 sacks last season and had two against the Bears.
OT John St. Clair
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
"I think he's proven a lot of people wrong," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said of St. Clair. "Those questions were more from the outside. Whenever he's played, he's played well. He's a great worker and we're not surprised at how he's playing, but I think everyone on the outside is."
St. Clair and the offensive line haven't been perfect but they've kept Orton upright for the most part, especially in recent weeks. Because the line is playing so well, there doesn't appear to be a rush to get first-round pick Chris Williams into the lineup now that he's almost completely recovered from August back surgery.
The Bears don't want to fix something that isn't broken.
NOTES & QUOTES
Even though the Bears are No. 4 in average starting position after kickoffs – the 29.3-yard line – because opponents routinely kick the ball short to avoid Devin Hester, the Bears' Pro Bowl return specialist is taking the blame for the team ranking 19th in kickoff-return average and just 29th in punt-return average.
"I've kind of put all the pressure on myself, and I say that it is kind of my fault that the return game is not the way it was," said Hester, who is averaging just 5.4 yards per punt return. "I put all the pressure on me because, at the end of the day, I'm the one with the ball in my hands and I've got to be the one to figure it out and pick up the slack. If something breaks down, that's why they rely on me to spark the return game. I've got to be the one to step up and make big plays. It hasn't been the way it's been, so I take some of the blame for it."
Hester had 11 kick-return touchdowns in his first two seasons but has none so far this season. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub believes opponents still respect Hester's return ability as much as ever, so he has to prepare for when they kick to him and when they try to avoid him. He understands why Hester feels responsible for the drop-off in the return game.
"He's a competitor," Toub said. "He's holding himself accountable, which we want all of our players to do."
Bears head coach Lovie Smith said it's been difficult for Hester to keep up the NFL-record pace he established in his first two seasons.
"We had never seen anything like it before," Smith said. "And now after seven games he hasn't scored, and we're kind of wondering what's going on. But there is a lot of football left. We need Devin – just like the rest of our players – to step up, and he will." …
Strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer practiced with a bulky cast protecting his thumb, which required surgery last week. He has not been ruled out for Sunday's game, but he missed the final three games in 2005 with a similar injury – although he said that injury "felt a lot worse."
Hillenmeyer isn't sure of the exact time of the injury, which occurred early in the Vikings game on Oct. 19.
"I think it was in the very beginning of the game on that reverse to Adrian Peterson, but I really don't know," said Hillenmeyer, who had a season-high nine tackles in the game. "It didn't really hurt that bad."
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