Bears quarterback Jay Cutler can’t help but nod approvingly when asked how his confidence in Charles Leno Jr. has grown with the second-year tackle’s success against formidable competition.
“He’s done well against some very good pass-rushers,” Cutler said. “He’s had to block some studs out there one-on-one quite a bit.”
Leno’s list of competition is impressive. He’s held his own against the Raiders’ Aldon Smith, Chiefs’ Tamba Hali, Lions’ Ziggy Ansah and Vikings’ Everson Griffen.
Only Smith recorded a sack against Leno, and it came on the final play of the first half of the Bears’ 22-20 victory at Soldier Field. Press-box statisticians marked Griffen down for just one quarterback hit last week.
“Different guys. Different moves. Different styles every week,” said Leno, who will make his fifth consecutive start Monday night against the Chargers. “You got Tamba Hali, who is a seasoned veteran with 10 years plus in the league. You got Aldon Smith, an explosive pass rusher.
“I just go out there and really study the game, really study my opponent. I try to got out there and stay within myself, use my technique the best I possibly can.”
It’s working. Leno isn’t just delaying left tackle Jermon Bushrod’s return from a shoulder injury. Leno has made the spot his, seemingly decreasing the Bears’ need to add a tackle, whether through free agency or the draft this offseason.
With his freakish athleticism and smarts, Kyle Long remains an intriguing option to move over from the right side. But every week provides examples why having two viable tackles is a mandatory.
The Raiders’ have Smith and Khalil Mack. The Chiefs have Hali and Justin Houston. The Chargers have outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu. And next week, the Rams will send Robert Quinn and Long’s brother, Chris, after Cutler.
Leno simply fits better on the left side. From being able to use his right hand to strike to his sets, everything feels more natural. It allows him to do more, too.
“I’m also kind of an unorthodox player I like to say,” Leno said. “I like to use a variety of moves and hand combinations. I won’t always use that because a defender will pick up on it, obviously. You just try to use a variety of different moves. That’s why those defenders that get paid a lot of money, those [defensive] ends. They use a variety of moves.”
Leno methodically studies his competition. He looks for their favorite moves on certain downs. He examines how they attack in two-minute drill situations. He’ll then ask his teammates to demonstrate them at practice.
“My biggest strength is probably just moving my feet,” Leno said. “I can probably say I mirror guys pretty well.”
There still is work to do. He’s not quite the run blocker that Bushrod is. It also helps that offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s offense features quick throws and involves moving the pocket. But what Leno is doing still is noteworthy. He’s been put in one-on-one matchups since his first start and done well.
“We’re getting to see him a little more, and obviously, his confidence is growing,” Gase said. “I feel comfortable with him out there.”
And, most importantly, so does Cutler.
“There were some games that we were throwing the ball 40 times and a lot of them were drop backs when we weren’t moving as much,” Cutler said. “He’s developing each and every week and he just has to continue to get better.”
RB Jeremy Langford
The rookie will get Matt Forte’s touches, but can he have same production? The Bears have the confidence that he will.
WR Alshon Jeffery
He’s looked every bit like a No. 1 receiver over the past two weeks, and he should have another big day. This time in prime-time.
OLB Pernell McPhee
The Chargers pass plenty and teams have struggled to contain McPhee. If McPhee can make life hell for QB Philip Rivers, the Bears’ chances improve.
RB Danny Woodhead
The shifty veteran back is a matchup problem waiting to happen for any of the Bears’ linebackers in pass coverage.
TE Antonio Gates
The veteran has missed five games because of a suspension and a knee injury, but he has 22 catches for 243 yards and two touchdowns in three games.
OLB Melvin Ingram
The Bears will have to be mindful of Ingram, who has three sacks, nine tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hits.
“Extremely competitive, maybe not the most beautiful technician and all those things. But he’s had great success.”
— Coach John Fox on Chargers QB Philip Rivers
Adrian Amos / Safety / No. 38
It’s too early to peg Amos as the Bears’ long-term answer at safety, a position that has been a problem for years. But the fifth-round pick from Penn State has been a reliable performer over the first seven games.
Amos has started every week and has been on the field for every defensive snap but three, which came in Week 3 against the Seahawks.
Secondary coach Ed Donatell has described Amos’ ability to handle everything as “rare” for his age. Donatell, who has coached several Pro Bowl defensive backs in his career, was particularly impressed with how Amos handled the communications in the secondary when veteran Antrel Rolle was out with a high-ankle sprain.
Amos’ most noticeable impact has come in run support, a big difference from Chris Conte, Major Wright and others who have come before him. Amos ranks second on the Bears with 48 total tackles.
The Bears will continue to put more on Amos’ plate. They desperately need big plays from their defensive backs. Amos, who has two tackles for loss, was featured as a blitzer last week against the Vikings.
“He’s got a good feel for it,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.
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