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1st-and-10: Is Bears’ offensive line for real?

The reconfigured line had arguably its best game of the season against the Damon Harrison-less Lions on Thanksgiving. But a bigger test lies ahead against the Cowboys’ defense Thursday.

The Bears moved Cody Whitehair (65) from left guard to center and James Daniels (68) from center to left guard at midseason.
AP

When I look back at the form to see where I went wrong in analyzing the 2019 Bears, the offensive line always comes up as a culprit ahead of even Mitch Trubisky.

The Bears’ O-line wasn’t great in 2018, but it was at least effective enough to warrant optimism that it could be among the best in the NFL. Not only was the line intact for a second consecutive year in Matt Nagy’s offense, but there was room for significant growth in the middle with James Daniels, Cody Whitehair and a healthy Kyle Long. So when left tackle Charles Leno Jr. said in August, “We want to be the best O-line in the league — period,” I didn’t roll my eyes or snicker. It sounded like at least a reasonable height to place the bar.

They haven’t come close to that. The Bears have dropped from 11th to 29th in rushing yards this season, from 27th to 29th in yards per carry and from 10th to 20th in sacks allowed per play.

And it has been one red flag after another. Long curiously was put on injured reserve after playing every snap against the Raiders. The Bears filled his spot with a developmental player in Rashaad Coward rather than proven veteran Ted Larsen — a surprising move for a win-now team. And Coward’s inexperience played a role — for the record, anyway — in Daniels and Whitehair being switched back to their 2018 positions (Daniels at guard, Whitehair at center) at midseason.

The Bears need a premier offensive tackle, but general manager Ryan Pace pulling that off — especially with Leno and Bobby Massie on long-term deals — would exceed the Khalil Mack acquisition as a deft personnel move. The growth very likely is going to have to come from within.

The offensive line’s performance against the Lions on Thanksgiving at least provided some hope that could happen. With right tackle Cornelius Lucas playing for the injured Massie, the Bears’ line had its best game of the season.

David Montgomery averaged 4.7 yards per carry (16 carries, 75 yards). The Bears did not have a negative rushing play for the first time all season (they came in with 23 in 11 games, which is the 12th-fewest in the NFL). And Trubisky was sacked once on 41 drop-backs.

But, like every other facet of success against Detroit, the line’s performance came with a qualifier. The Lions came in 24th in the NFL in rushing defense and 20th in yards per carry and were missing their best defensive lineman, Damon “Snacks” Harrison.

The Cowboys will be a step up in class. They rank eighth in total defense and 14th in yards allowed per carry. Though they’re 17th in sacks per pass play, they have two premier pass rushers in Robert Quinn (10 sacks) and two-time Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (five).

It remains to be seen if the O-line turned a corner or simply took advantage of a favorable matchup. The game Thursday night against Dallas at Soldier Field could tell the tale.

2 Trubisky has a similar challenge against a Cowboys defense that ranks sixth

in passing defense and fifth in passing yards per play. Trubisky’s nine games with passer ratings of 100 or more have come against defenses that ranked 30th, 25th, 31st, 21st, 14th, 19th, 25th, 25th and 24th against the pass.

Trubisky has a 122.0 passer rating against the Lions (two games) and Redskins this season. His passer rating is 71.4 against the rest of the schedule.

3 Did You Know? Trubisky has never had a passer rating in the 90s in a game under Nagy? It’s true. In 26 starts in the last two seasons, Trubisky has nine games with ratings of 102.7 or better and 17 games with ratings of 89.6 or worse. (The average passer rating in the NFL is 92.9; it was 91.2 last year).

The only quarterbacks with 10 or more starts since 2018 who have not had single-game ratings in the 90s: Ryan Tannehill (16 starts), Josh Rosen (16), Jimmy Garoppolo (14), Blake Bortles (12) and Kyle Allen (10).

4 Interesting fallout from Anthony Miller’s career day against the Lions: Nagy wasn’t going to let Miller’s production obscure the holes in his game fundamentally. With a rare opportunity to celebrate a non-Allen Robinson performance, Nagy instead put a more critical spin on Miller’s nine-catch, 140-yard day.

“He’s getting more opportunities, for sure,” Nagy said. “With all that said, we want to make sure we’re still homing in on the details. So numbers-wise, he’s done a good job. But we can all still improve in some areas, and he knows that. It’s important, regardless of a stat line, that we make sure that on every play we’re doing the right thing all the time.”

5 Nagy and the Bears have their own problems, but coach Jason Garrett and the Cowboys are in rough waters themselves — even though they’re in first place in the NFC East. The Cowboys are in the top 10 statistically on offense and defense — first in yards per play; eighth in yards allowed per play — but are 6-6 in the worst division in the NFL.

The Cowboys’ six victories are against the Giants (2-9, twice), Redskins (2-9), Dolphins (2-9), Eagles (5-6) and Lions (3-8-1).

5a The NFC East is 9-24 against outside competition, with only two of those victories against winning teams: The Eagles beat the Packers (8-3) and Bills (9-3).

6 For What It’s Worth Dept.: With the victory over the Lions, Nagy is 8-2 against the NFC North. Both losses are against the Packers — 24-23 in the 2018 opener and 10-3 in the 2019 opener.

7 The List: Starting quarterbacks the Bears have beaten this season — Joe Flacco (on IR), Case Keenum (benched), Kirk Cousins (leads the NFL in passer rating), Jeff Driskel (backup), Daniel Jones (rookie backup to start the season) and David Blough (third-stringer, playing in his first NFL game).

8 Two days after undrafted free-agent tight end Jesper Horsted caught an 18-yard touchdown pass on the first play he was targeted in the NFL, the Bears put 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen on injured reserve — likely ending his career with the team.

In 27 games with the Bears, Shaheen caught 26 passes for 249 yards (9.6 yards per reception) with a long play of 31 yards. His four touchdowns were on plays of two, one, one and two yards. Horsted, who spent the first 11 weeks of the season on the practice squad, was a wide receiver at Princeton. Not that Horsted has made it yet, but scouting is an inexact science, indeed.

9 Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week Award: Steelers rookie running back Kerrith Whyte gained 21 yards against the Bengals on Nov. 24 on his first carry since being claimed off the Bears’ practice squad Nov. 16. He had 43 yards on six carries in his first NFL game.

Whyte was a seventh-round draft pick (222nd overall) from Florida Atlantic.

10 Bear-ometer: 7-9 — vs. Cowboys (L); at Packers (L); vs. Chiefs (L); at Vikings (W).