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New-look o-line key to Bears' big expectations

The Sports Xchange
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Heading into training camp, the biggest concern for the NFC North-defending champion Bears was an offensive line that could have been sued by quarterback Jay Cutler for non-support in 2010.

Cutler was sacked 52 times in 2010, 12 more than any other NFL quarterback. So how did camp open? With the Bears and 12-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz locked in a stare-down over $500,000.

The Bears refused to budge beyond $4 million on a one-year deal for the past-his-prime, but still-serviceable line leader. Kreutz refused to report for less than $4.5 million. He is now a member of the New Orleans Saints.

The next day the Bears paid $6 million on a two-year deal to unrestricted free agent center Chris Spencer, the former Seahawk, and promptly installed him as ... the backup to Roberto Garza.

That's right, the Bears took a 10-year NFL guard and stuck him at a new position. Well, not absolutely new, Garza played one game at center back in 2005. But the move could wind up being sheer genius. As the most experienced member of the remaining linemen, Garza is eminently qualified to make the line calls that he listened to Kreutz make for the past seven seasons. After a short adjustment period on the exchange with Cutler, Garza has adapted well to his new position.

Garza's move to the pivot left a hole at his right guard spot. Lance Louis was inserted into the spot at which he washed out after four games last season, when Garza was briefly moved to left guard. Louis also struggled initially but by the end of the preseason was flashing the potential that intrigued offensive line coach Mike Tice a year ago.

Chris Williams, a 2008 first-round pick who has already failed at both tackle spots, is back at left guard, where he was moved last season in a final effort to find him a home. So far, the guard spot seems to suit Williams.

The tackle spots are in the hands of youngsters with lots of upside. This year's first-round pick, Gabe Carimi is on the right side, and 2010 seventh-round pick J'Marcus Webb, an athletic big man, is on the left side.

The Bears allowed nine sacks in their preseason opener, but the starters have gotten significantly better each week, and Tice is hopeful. If the group lives up to expectations, the Bears can be a better team than last year's NFC North champions because most of the other key players are back.

The defense remains good enough to carry the team to the playoffs. The Big Three, Pro Bowlers Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, haven't shown any evidence of diminishing skills, even though all are 30 or older. Briggs, however, missed most of the preseason with what is considered a fairly minor knee bruise, and he voiced his growing displeasure with the six-year, $36 million deal he signed three seasons ago.

The defensive line is deep and talented. Left end Israel Idonije has emerged as a talented complement to Peppers and, while there are no superstars inside, there are more than enough solid role players to make the line a team strength.

Linebacker is a concern because of a serious lack of depth. If the 33-year-old Urlacher or Briggs, who will be 31 in November, are forced to miss much time, there is nothing behind them.

The secondary is good enough to match the 16 interceptions of a year ago and possibly better with Major Wright, a third-round pick last year, moving in at free safety and enabling Chris Harris to move to his more natural strong safety spot.

Critics last season said the Bears lacked a big wide receiver, and they went out and signed one in Roy Williams, and then they handed him a starting spot ahead of last year's leading receiver Johnny Knox. With just a few days remaining until the start of the regular season, Williams had not impressed anyone, and there were growing questions of why he was moved ahead of Knox. Even if Williams has no impact, the receivers should be better, considering Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Knox are all more comfortable in their second season in Mike Martz's offense.

They should give Cutler better weapons, but if the line doesn't protect the quarterback better than it did last year, it won't matter.

COACHING
Lovie Smith, 8th year, 8th with Bears (63-49).

REMEMBERING
2010 record: 11-5 (1st in NFC North); lost in NFC title game to Packers, 21-14.

PREDICTING
2011 regular-season record 10-6 (2nd in NFC North); lose in NFC title game.

Copyright (C) 2011 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.

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