One of the biggest issues the Bears had to work through last season was finding a starting offensive line unit that could both open running lanes, and keep quarterbacks upright. Towards the end of the year they finally got in a groove, and it looked like things were trending in the right direction this season. James Daniels was set to return, and there was genuine buzz around second-round draft selection Teven Jenkins.
However, it’s been a rocky start to camp as guys have moved in and out of the lineup for various reasons. Jenkins hasn’t practiced since veteran minicamp with a nagging back injury. Neither has last year’s starting right tackle Germain Ifedi, as he still hasn’t recovered from a hip flexor injury he sustained during conditioning drills to open camp. James Daniels hasn't returned after he left practice early on Aug. 3 with a quad injury. Elijah Wilkinson missed time on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Larry Borom has been in the concussion protocol since Aug. 6, and Alex Bars has shuffled around just about everywhere on the line to fill in the gaps.
To say the least, there has not been much consistency on the line to start building chemistry. But that hasn’t fazed the two guys who have been there through it all: Sam Mustipher and Cody Whitehair.
“Injuries are going to happen, we all know that’s part of the game,” Whitehair said. “You know you just have to be ready for that next guy to step in. That’s why during training camp we get reps with everyone. I think that helps, because we know how hard that is during the season when injuries happen.”
With so much emphasis always placed on the OLine playing well as a unit, Mustipher flipped the script and said the team is now looking for each individual to play with an edge. They don’t want one tone-setter, they want five.
“We're all trying to be that guy,” Mustipher said. “That's the ideal situation, where we're all that guy. I think you saw glimpses of it this weekend. Everybody being around the ball, everybody finishing on their man. We all want to be that guy. We don't wanna pick out one guy. If that's the standard, then everybody should be at that standard. That's the ideal goal for offensive lines.
“We don't want to (say), 'Oh, that's our bellcow. We want to lean on this guy.' No. Everybody be that guy. Everybody be the guy that down in, down out. I'm going to be able to depend on you, know where you're gonna be at. I know you're gonna be finishing your man, blocking to the whistle. I know you're gonna be over there picking up our ball carriers, our running backs and protecting our quarterbacks with your life.”
Whitehair echoed that sentiment, by saying the entire unit will succeed if individuals can find success, no matter who those individuals are.
“I think the biggest thing for us is just一 we talk about winning our one-on-one block every day,” Whitehair said. “Collectively, if everybody on the line wins their one-on-one block, we’ve got a pretty good chance of having a successful play, both in the run and the pass. That’s our biggest thing is we’re just trying to win our one-on-one blocks, and then we focus on our combination blocks as well and being in the right spot for our buddy to fill the seam and get movement up front.”
For now, that focus has worked. In Saturday’s preseason game, pass protection didn’t look like a glaring problem. There were miscues that needed to be cleaned up, like a false start and a snap that ended up on the ground, but on the whole each quarterback had time to throw the ball and there were no sacks. That’s a big change from the last time the Bears were at Soldier Field, for their first padded practice at Family Fest. There, the line looked completely out of sorts after Daniels exited early, surrendering a sack on seemingly every other play during 11 vs. 11 drills.
“I think that was something we were all looking forward to seeing,” Matt Nagy said. “They came out playing a good game, so we want to keep that going.”
“There should be no drop off in play,” Mustipher said. “Building that standard that comes with reps and that comes over time, you know it's not something that just happens in one day. You've got to build the conditioning, you've got to build the mental fortitude to understand in a two-minute situation what are your assignments, what are your blocking calls, like, who am I ‘Mikeing.’ We all need to be seeing things through one set of eyes. And if we can do that, no matter who's on the field, then you know that cohesiveness as a unit that builds, and that's critical for an offensive line, critical for our offense to succeed.”