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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Bears start over on offensive line -- and it might be working


Left guard Chris Williams is the only Bears O-lineman in the same spot from the NFC title game. (US Presswire)  
Left guard Chris Williams is the only Bears O-lineman in the same spot from the NFC title game. (US Presswire)  

NASVHILLE, Tenn. -- Bad line. Horrible left tackle. Jay Cutler just might get killed this season.

You've already heard it all this summer as it relates to the Chicago Bears offensive line. Some of it could be true.

But here's a prediction: The line will be better than people think.

The visions of Cutler being slammed to the ground and slowly standing up, a sour-puss look on his face, anger racing through his body, is a visual Bears fans would love to see a lot less in 2011. But a slow start, and a reshuffling of the line, has opened the guys up front to more biting criticism.

"That's the thing about the offensive line," Bears left guard Chris Williams said. "When people are talking about you, it's not a good thing. When they are, there are problems. We don't want people talking about us."

That won't happen. It's probably the area of the team that will decide whether the Bears can repeat as a playoff team in 2011. Even as they won the NFC North and made their way to the NFC Championship Game last season, falling just short of a Super Bowl, the line wasn't the type you expect from Super Bowl contenders.

Cutler was sacked an NFL-high 52 times. And he finished the NFC title game watching from the sidelines with a knee injury, which led to his toughness being questioned and the offensive line getting the blame.

In the first preseason game against the Bills this summer, the woes carried over. The Bears gave up nine sacks. Cutler was sacked on his first pass attempt. The matador line was at it again.

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Now two weeks later, the line is starting to take shape. Cutler wasn't sacked Saturday night in the 14-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans. He had time and he looked sharp making throws from the pocket.

There were no free runners. There were no shots to take his head off. There wasn't any bad body language, which is Cutler-speak for "What the heck are you doing to me?"

"The offensive line did a good job for the second week in a row," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Pass protection was pretty good."

The amazing thing about this line is that just one player -- Williams at left guard -- is starting in the spot they played during the NFC Championship Game.

That means in seven months the line has had a major overhaul. Even in the free-agency era, that's surprising. What makes it even tougher is the offensive line is the one unit that needs to work together to get better.

Chemistry is key.

"We're getting there," center Roberto Garza said. "It's a week-by-week thing."

Garza started at right guard last season. But when the team wouldn't ante up enough to keep veteran Olin Kreutz, Garza was moved to center -- his college position. With 10 years of experience, he is by far the leader of the group.

"I haven't played it in 10 years, but I had the opportunity to learn from one of the best," Garza said.

His veteran leadership is needed. Right tackle Gabe Carimi is a rookie who is moving from the left side. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb started 12 games at right tackle last season as a rookie but is moving to the all-important left side.

Webb is a big, athletic player who struggled early with the transition, but played well against the Titans. He has good feet and seems to set well in pass protection. He mauled his guy on the Bears' lone touchdown run.

Carimi's move has been tough, he said.

"You have to re-teach yourself everything," Carimi said.

He likened the move to trying to hit a baseball left-handed after hitting from the right side your entire career.

The guards are Williams, who failed as a tackle, and Lance Louis, a powerfully built third-year player.

"The chemistry is coming," Carimi said. "But we're not close to where we need to be."

Offensive line coach Mike Tice is one of the best in football, and he will mold this group into one that will be better than the 2010 version.

The run blocking was also good against the Titans. Matt Forte ran for 74 yards on 17 carries.

"You see a lot of rapid development from week to week," Forte said. "They are coming together as a unit. It's better with young guys. They have room to grow. They have a lot to learn, but it's good having young guys up front."

If Cutler is taking shots -- and sending off bad vibes -- and there is no room to run, Forte might re-think that. For now, though, the potential is there. Cutler seemed upbeat about the offense after the game.

"We left some points out there -- you hate to see that -- but our offensive line played better, the receivers played better, and Matt ran the ball," he said "We're not quite ready for the opener, but we're getting there."

The clay isn't molded yet, but this young line will be better than you think. Cutler won't go down 52 times, which means we won't see that bitter-taste look of his as much as we did last season, and the Bears might be better on offense in 2011.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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