LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — Mike Tice refers to it in jest as the night he “almost resigned.”
The ‘ offensive line coach watched in horror as Jay Cutler got sacked nine times in a loss to the in early October, a jarring eye-opener that could have sent him into hiding.
Instead, Tice stuck around.
The blockers stuck it out and the Bears (11-4) are now headed to the playoffs for the first time in four years, with a first-round bye and an outside shot at the top seed in the NFC as they wrap up the regular season at .
It’s quite a turnaround for a team that appeared to be going nowhere earlier in the season, dropping three of four before their off week following a 3-0 start. Since then, Chicago has won seven of eight, and one reason for that is the blocking.
It’s been better, if not dominant.
Even so, that’s a big improvement for a line that ranks dead last overall in the NFL and has allowed a league-leading 50 sacks.
Cutler is staying on his feet, with 19 sacks in the past eight games compared to 27 in his first six. Matt Forte is finding room to run, averaging 4.7 yards per carry during this turnaround and 5.7 over the past five games.
Suddenly, the line doesn’t seem quite as vulnerable.
“They’re just more confident, I think,” Forte said. “When you know what to do and who to get, then you can play faster that way. They’re playing at an extremely high level.”
The linemen had arguably their best game last week against one of the toughest defenses in a 38-34 win over the .
They gave Cutler enough time to throw for 215 yards and three touchdowns with just two sacks, while Forte ran for 113 yards on 19 attempts.
It’s hard to believe this is the same unit that was giving opponents free passes earlier this season. Then again, it’s not quite the same.
It went through four different lineups in the first seven games because of injuries and poor play while struggling to adapt to ‘s system.
“We’ve been growing as a group, week after week and we still have a long way to go,” guard Roberto Garza said.
Former first-round pick Chris Williams went from left tackle to left guard after he returned from an early hamstring injury.
Frank Omiyale moved from right tackle to left tackle. Kevin Shaffer started two games at right tackle before J’Marcus Webb settled in there, and Lance Louis and Edwin Williams made starts at right guard, where Garza has started the past eight games. He also started the first five at left guard before missing two games with a knee injury.
The only constant in the first seven games was veteran Olin Kreutz at center. That’s changed since the break, with Omiyale, Williams, Kreutz, Garza and Webb locked in.
“We had some injuries,” said Tice, the offensive line coach. “We have a new system. And anytime you have that combination — injuries, a new system, young guys — you’re kind of feeling your way through things and we certainly were doing that. We weren’t playing together for no other reason except we hadn’t played together. This guy’s in, he’s hurt. This guy’s in, he’s hurt. Move him to the other side. We had all those things going on. We felt like during the bye we could settle in on five guys. We were starting to get healthy.”
The Bears also started cutting back on the deep drops, getting the ball out of Cutler’s hands quicker, and began to move him around more and take advantage of his quickness.
That helped cut back on the sacks and maybe took some of the pressure off the line. So did the commitment to the ground game.
The Bears are the only team to run it more than throw it over the past eight weeks, with 238 rushing attempts and 231 pass plays (including sacks). They’re keeping defenses off balance and that makes everyone’s job a little easier, including the line’s.
“We’re playing better,” Garza said. “We’re getting better every week and that’s all that matters.”
Tice credited Martz for adjusting.
“You look at yourself,” he said. “What are you asking your kids to do? What are you doing? What can they handle? What do we want to do more of? What do you want to do less of? I thought as a staff, the guys did a nice job of that, and I thought Mike did a great job of collecting all that information and adjusting. It’s paid dividends for us.”
Notes: Brian Urlacher said the Soldier Field turf is negating the defense’s speed. Stingy for most of the year, the Bears have looked vulnerable in their last two home games, giving up 36 points in a loss to New England and 34 last week in a win over the New York Jets. “The footing at Soldier Field has been horrible,” Urlacher said. “We’re a fast team, and when you get us on a surface like that, it kind of takes a little of our speed.”