The 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.
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 2 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 appeared to be responsible for 2 of the Bills' sacks.
Offensive line coach Mike Tice said 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."
Or, the Bears could move center Roberto Garza moves 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.
"We wanted to play the offensive line the entire first half to get them some work playing together," coach Lovie Smith said. "I liked the stuff we did on the scoring drive."
On the Bears' third possession, and with the Bills' first-team defensive line still in the game, they drove 52 yards for a touchdown, capped by a 4-yard Hanie scamper, but the score was mostly the result of strong running by Marion Barber, who carried six times for 37 yards on the drive.
The O-line did a much better job of run blocking against the Bills, but Barber was able to get several yards after contact, and he showed quickness and elusiveness to go with his violent style.
"He is a powerful guy," Hanie said. "He's a smart guy. He has good vision. The offensive line did a good job blocking for him, too."
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 3 yards against the Bills.
"He's a tough runner," Cutler said of Barber. "I think we brought him in just for that reason."
Third-team running back Kahlil Bell was impressive playing with and against backups. He carried 13 times for 73 yards and caught 2 passes for 46 yards.
The Bears' first-team defense played just two possessions and allowed 3 points at the end of a 10-play, 45-yard drive. It allowed Bills starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to complete 7 of 9 passes, but most of them were on short drops, and they totaled just 44 yards.
The defense carried the Bears to the NFC championship game last season, and it may have to do most of the heavy lifting again this season. But early indications are that the defense is up to the task.
Even without starting nose tackle Anthony Adams, who did not dress because of a calf injury, the defense was stout, especially the line. Henry Melton, the new starter at the 3-technique tackle, was active and disruptive, dropping running back C.J. Spiller for a 3-yard loss on the opening possession.
Amobi Okoye, who played behind Melton and is expected to be in an integral piece of the D-line rotation, had 3 solo tackles, including a sack for a 9-yard loss.
The promotion of Major Wright to the starting free safety position appears to be a wise move. The second-year player got off to a great start, as he was outstanding in run support, making 5 unassisted tackles in the first half.
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