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Bears will lay it all on the line vs. Saints

Sunday’s playoff game will be the biggest test yet of the Bears’ revamped offensive line of Charles Leno, Cody Whitehair, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and Germain Ifedi. “I think we’ve forged an identity,” Ifedi said.

Charles Leno (72) has started 94 consecutive games at left tackle for the Bears.
Charles Leno (72) has started 94 consecutive games at left tackle for the Bears.
David Berding/AP Photos

The Bears hired Juan Castillo to replace Harry Hiestand as their offensive line coach on Jan. 5 last year — a Sunday announcement that coincided with the Vikings’ upset of the Saints in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

It’s a notable coincidence because it was the Vikings’ offensive line, under first-year line coach Rick Dennison, that helped spark the upset. Two weeks after the Vikings’ line imploded in a 23-10 loss to the Packers, allowing five sacks of Kirk Cousins, it kept Cousins relatively clean (two sacks for 10 yards). And it paved the way for 136 rushing yards on 40 carries for ball control (36:56) that helped the Vikings keep Saints quarterback Drew Brees off the field.

The Bears likely need some big plays to beat the Saints on Sunday: takeaways they failed to get against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers last week, or a defensive or special-teams touchdown. A quick score on offense, preferably early, would provide the spark. But in lieu of those game-changing plays — or perhaps in addition to them — an inspired performance by their revamped offensive line would go a long way toward them pulling off the biggest upset of the wild-card round.

It will be the ultimate test for the O-line since it settled in with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback against the Packers in Week 12, with Charles Leno at left tackle, Cody Whitehair at left guard, Sam Mustipher at center, Alex Bars at right guard and Germain Ifedi at right tackle.

“As a line and an offense, I think we’ve kind of forged an identity and continue to build on that every week,” Ifedi said. “This is an important game to jell and continue to grow into what we can become. We’re still relatively new, but we have expectations of continuing to get better.”

The Packers’ defensive front was a step up last week, and the newfangled line was not overwhelmed. Trubisky was sacked only once, and the Bears rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries (3.5 average). But the Saints’ defensive front — even without injured end Trey Hendrickson — is another step up from that. Led by defensive linemen Cam Jordan (7½ sacks) and David Onyemata (6½ sacks) and linebacker Darius Davis (10 tackles for loss), the unit is fourth in total defense, fourth against the run, fifth against the pass and sixth in sacks.

When the Bears played the Saints on Nov. 1 at Soldier Field, their offensive line issues were piling up fast. Left guard James Daniels already was out for the season. Mustipher, just promoted from the practice squad, made his first NFL start at center in place of Whitehair, who was out with a calf injury. Right tackle Bobby Massie suffered a knee injury on the fourth offensive snap and was out for the game. Jason Spriggs, his replacement, suffered an injury and left the game, which put Bars at left guard and moved Rashaad Coward to right tackle. And it was just starting to get messy. Even Mustipher missed the next two games with a knee injury he suffered in that game.

But with Mustipher returning to center, Whitehair moving to left guard, Bars starting at right guard and Ifedi in place of Massie at right tackle, the Bears have found chemistry they were lacking. They’ve lost their best player in Daniels and a solid veteran in Massie, yet this line has never been better this season.

Now they need to take their collective game to another level for one of those special performances. The Vikings proved it can be done.

“When you get a group of guys that have been playing consecutive weeks together, that helps a lot,” Leno said. “But continuity ain’t going to help you when it comes to Sunday. We’ve got to do our jobs and execute at a high level.”