Bears’ offensive line searching for elusive continuity
With guards Cody Whitehair (knee) and Teven Jenkins (neck) doubtful for Saturday’s game against the Bills, the Bears likely will have their eighth starting combination this season.
Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan is used to shuffling his starting five.
“It happens all the time, all over the place,” said Morgan, who has been a head line coach in the NFL for eight seasons. “I think I’ve had one year where they all started [every game]. But it happens to everybody. Next man up.”
It might happen all the time but, for Morgan, never quite like it has with the 2022 Bears. This season has been a revolving door of linemen moving in and out of the lineup — sometimes from one series to the next.
Injuries are the main culprit, along with rotations Morgan has used at right guard and right tackle to find the right combination. But they’ve cost the Bears the continuity that develops the chemistry that creates the sweet spot that is the secret to the success of many offensive lines — a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
And it makes a difference. The one time Morgan has had all five linemen start every game was with the Falcons in 2016 — not coincidentally the season they reached the Super Bowl.
That’s a dream scenario for an offensive line coach these days, but the Bears haven’t been even close. They’ve already used seven starting combinations.
In fact, since rookie left tackle Braxton Jones, left guard Cody Whitehair, center Sam Mustipher, right guard Teven Jenkins and right tackle Larry Borom started Week 1 against the 49ers, the Bears have changed their lineup 45 times, including in-game changes.
And they’ll likely have an eighth different starting lineup — and 46th lineup change — Saturday against the Bills at Soldier Field. Whitehair (knee) and Jenkins (neck) have not practiced this week and are listed as doubtful.
Morgan is running out of viable options. Veteran Michael Schofield is expected to start for Jenkins. If Jenkins and Whitehair can’t play, Larry Borom, Riley Reiff and Alex Leatherwood are candidates to play left guard.
Borom hasn’t played guard in his two NFL seasons. Reiff hasn’t played guard in his 11 seasons. Leatherwood started 13 games at guard as a rookie for the Raiders last season, but they cut him in training camp this season.
Morgan, who never lets you see him sweat, said he feels good about the likely changes for the upcoming game.
“Larry’s had some reps there [at guard]; Riley’s a vet,” Morgan said. “It’s tough. It’s part of doing whatever, so you feel good about all those guys.”
The good news for the Bears is that the predicted inclement weather — single-digit temperatures with gusts up to 50 mph — might force them to rely even more on the running game, which is their strength. The Bears lead the NFL in rushing (186.9 yards per game — more than 30 yards per game ahead of the second-place Ravens).
The lack of continuity plays a bigger role in the passing game, where communication is vital in protection. The Bears are last in the NFL in passing yards and sacks allowed per pass.
But while chemistry matters, it’s not the only solution to a pass-blocking issue.
“We gotta do our job,” said Schofield, a starter on the Broncos’ team that won Super Bowl 50 after the 2015 season. “You can blame whatever you want, but we know as an O-line that we have to pass-block better. We know we can even run-block better. We know we have to play better as a line. We have to step up and do it.”