Bears-Bills recap: Defensive line looks deep, solid

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Marion Barber showed glimpses of the hard-nosed running style that he exhibited in Dallas.
Marion Barber showed glimpses of the hard-nosed running style that he exhibited in Dallas.

It’s impossible to make any definitive assessment about anybody’s performance after one preseason game, but perceptions can be cemented. They say that football starts up front with the offensive and defensive lines and both sides caught our attention, but for different reasons.

On Saturday night, we didn’t see much from the offensive line to ease our concerns about their protection and run-blocking issues. J’Marcus Webb, moved from right tackle to the left this year because his skills are supposed to be better suited to protect Jay Cutler’s blind side, was beaten badly for a sack in the first quarter along with Lance Louis. Louis was called “an elite pass blocker” by offensive line coach Mike Tice, and yet Louis was beaten twice for sacks.

Roberto Garza had some struggles at center. He whiffed on a block on a screen pass early in the game, had trouble keeping his footing while pulling on another play, and got beaten on a defensive line stunt that resulted in a sack. At least he and Cutler did not have any botched snaps.

As for Chris Williams, the only member of the current offensive line who started at his position last year, he was just awful. Williams whiffed on a block early in the game that caused running back Marion Barber to be dropped for a loss. He consistently was slow off the snap and seemed to be chasing his defender down the line. And in one of the most indicting plays of the game for him, he caused what could have been a huge run to be stopped for a short gain. Because he got beaten off the line, his defender got instant penetration into the backfield. That penetration disrupted Louis in the middle of him pulling down the line and he got pushed backwards into Desmond Clark. Clark, lined up in the backfield as the H-back, was delayed because Louis got in his way and that delay caused Barber to run up Clark’s back instead of through a hole. It was like a domino effect and that whole play started with Williams failing to block his man.

The only player whose performance was not questionable was rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi. If I were Mike Martz, I’d start calling off-tackle runs to the right.

At some point this season — maybe before the preseason is up — Chris Spencer could be inserted into the starting lineup at center and Garza could resume his natural position at one of the two guard spots, preferably right guard where he’s played most of his career. Spencer made some nice plays including when he pulled and was the lead blocker on a 27-yard Khalil Bell run in the second half.

It wasn’t all bad for the Bears offense. The backfield looked pretty competitive, although it wasn’t Matt Forte leading the charge. Forte did indeed play despite speculation that he might sit out to avoid injury and he did not do much in his short time in the game. He missed badly on a blitz pickup on the first drive of the game which caused Cutler to have to scramble for a first down — a nice play, however, by the slimmed-down signal caller. Chester Taylor didn’t do anything spectacular but Barber looked great in his first action with the team. He ran over an unsuspecting cornerback and had several big runs, finishing with 45 yards on 7 carries. Fourth-string running back Bell looked impressive in his extended playing time. He had 73 yards on 13 carries and 46 yards on 2 receptions. His performance could put even more pressure on Taylor to step it up or risk losing his job.

There wasn’t much to watch from the wide receiver corps. Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett each had one catch while the starters, Roy Williams and Devin Hester, had none. Backup Kris Adams led the way with 3 catches for 58 yards, including a 31-yard reception from third-string quarterback Nathan Enderle.

Similarly, the tight ends failed to make any highlight plays and Kellen Davis struggled on a few run plays. But their performance doesn’t concern me as much as the offensive line’s did. There are so many good weapons on the offense this year and I’m concerned we’ll never get to see them reach their potential unless the line jells — and quickly.

As has been the case for many years in these parts, the defense and special teams carried the offense on Saturday. The most impressive unit on the team was the defensive line, which constantly collapsed the pocket and harassed Buffalo’s quarterbacks. The new additions, Vernon Gholston and Amobi Okoye, looked solid. There were a string of plays late in the first half where Gholston was in on nearly every one of them. He lost containment on wide receiver/wildcat quarterback Brad Smith on one play, but his performance was mostly all positive. As for Okoye, he provided the kind of inside pass rush this defense sorely needs. He regularly got around his blocker into the backfield to flush the quarterback out of the pocket, and he finished with the Bears’ only two sacks on the night. One has to figure he’ll work his way into starting contention at some point this preseason.

Henry Melton, meanwhile, looks great. He was able to put on a lot of weight this offseason to play tackle in place of the departed Tommie Harris and yet Melton still maintains the athleticism that allowed him to be a high school running back. He and Okoye lining up side-by-side on third-and-long situations (they play the same position normally) could be a dream come true.

Whatever transpires along the defensive line, it figures to be the deepest and most potent unit on the team, and could carry the Bears through many tough games.

The secondary was hardly challenged by the Bills’ offense. Chris Harris and Tim Jennings combined for a vicious hit to finish off a pile. Zack Bowman similarly had a violent hit to break up a pass later in the game but he injured himself on the play and had to leave the game. That’s not going to be good for his competition with Jennings. I think of all the starting defensive backs it was Major Wright who turned up most often. He led the team with five tackles and showed great open-field tackling ability, something he’s been praised for by both the coaches and his teammates.

The special teams made some nice plays against the Bills. Johnny Knox, taking over the kick return duties for the departed Danieal Manning, had some nice returns, including one for 70 yards. He also had some good punt returns as well. The coverage units were adequate and a pair of newcomers almost made a nice play for a turnover. Gholston wrapped up the kick returner and wide receiver Sam Hurd stripped the ball loose, which the Bears recovered. Unfortunately, the Bears had an illegal formation on the kickoff and had to re-kick.

The kickers had a shaky outing, however. New punter Adam Podlesh shanked his first punt as a Bear. Thanks to a fortuitous bounce, it didn’t cost the Bears field position. He only had a 32-yard average on his 4 punts. Robbie Gould, meanwhile, missed a pair of field goals. One would have been a career-long 56-yard kick at the end of the first half, which had the distance but which he pushed wide right. The other kick he shanked wide left from just 33 yards out.

It’s important to stress that this was only the first preseason game and it’s not good to get either too high or too low from the team’s performance. After all, the Bears went 0-4 last preseason and made it to the NFC title game. But there were some things to feel good about — the defensive line, Wright, Barber and Bell — as well as some things to watch closely in the next game in hopes of seeing improvement — four of the five starters along the offensive line.

This was just one step in the right direction.

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