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How Much Better Must The O-Line Protect?

No, he's not a lineman, but he's <em>really</em> one of the pieces the team will depend on.
No, he's not a lineman, but he's really one of the pieces the team will depend on.

As has been discussed quite often here on the WCG airwaves, the Bears' offensive line hasn't really been a bright spot over the last few years, and it's largely been a unit with a lot of shuffling (and not the Super Bowl type of shuffling either) with a hint of player movement thrown in.

But a couple of recent Super Bowl champions have shown that a top-tier offensive line isn't a complete necessity. Follow me past the jump and let's see what has won the Super Bowl the last few years...

Let's start by looking at the 2011 New York Giants. Last year's champions only allowed Eli Manning to get sacked 28 times, a 4.5% Sack Rate - which really isn't bad. What is bad is the team's offensive line, of which two had a positive rating for pass-blocking on Pro Football Focus - and that's at 0.3. In fact, no offensive lineman - none - had an overall positive rating. David Diehl himself was -48.1 overall, -35.5 in pass-blocking, with 8 hits and 48 hurries allowed. Kareem McKenzie was -22.8 overall, -23.4 in pass-blocking, with 6 hits and 47 hurries allowed. Overall, there were 34 hits and 189 hurries with a unit pass-blocking rating of -105.1.

That's actually worse than in 2010, when McKenzie had a +23.6 overall rating (and a +7.9 in pass-blocking!), the team only allowed 29 hits and 125 hurries. And no limited sample size here, as McKenzie had a full 1088 offensive snaps.

And in 2009, 34 hits, 110 hurries, and McKenzie had a rating of +15.0 overall (-0.8 pass-blocking). J'Webb critics and boosters alike, take note as there are no guarantees in the NFL - you can have a good year, a really good year, and a fall-off-the-table-blind-drunk-bad year.

But that's one case. How about the 2010 Packers? Last year's offensive line could actually pass-block, but in 2010 the line had two members with positive pass-block ratings - Josh Sitton (31.6 overall, 13.9 pass blocking) and Daryn Colledge (-5.4 overall, +1.1 pass blocking) - and Jason Spitz (-2.2), Mark Tauscher (-7.3) and Bryan Bulaga (-13.1) balancing it out. So the Packers allowing only 28 hits and 147 hurries probably has more to do with Aaron Rodgers' quick-twitch throwing than with any actual protection from someone not named Sitton (though I imagine we'd take Sitton in a heartbeat). Bulaga alone was worth 33 hurries and Chad Clifton, despite his 0.0 pass-block rating, allowed 30 himself. The unit overall had a -8.8 rating in pass-blocking, even with Sitton's high number.

And back in 2009, the offensive line wasn't much good in pass-blocking either, touting such standouts as Allen Barbre (-13.6 pass-block), TJ Lang (-9.4) and Colledge (-8.4) and allowing 33 hits with 135 hurries to go with 51 sacks.

Let's go back further - the 2009 Saints. Back in 2009, the Saints had a very good pass-blocking unit - Carl Nicks, Jonathan Goodwin, Jahri Evans all led the team in pass-block rating (7.6, 5.3, 4.4 respectively) with only Jermon Bushrod really holding things badly (-10.7). And the team still allowed 132 hurries and 37 hits, having a +6.0 pass-block rating, with Jon Stinchcomb and Bushrod leading the way with 34 and 32, respectively - in fact, Nicks, Goodwin and Evans all allowed 15 to 20 hurries themselves (Evans 20, Nicks 16, Goodwin 15).

And that's after a 2008 unit that removed Jammal Brown and his 27 hurries and 15 hits allowed, and had allowed 46 hits and 130 hurries total.

So where do the 2011 Bears stand in this?

Let's start with the totals - 34 hits allowed, 161 hurries, and as a unit, -58.3 in pass-block rating. And there are two worse players than anything the above teams had in their Super Bowl seasons (aside from last year's Diehl and McKenzie) - J'Marcus Webb with -15.8 rating, 12 sacks credited, 6 hits and 30 hurries; and Lance Louis, -20.9 rating, 8 sacks credited, 6 hits and 27 hurries.

And now let's consider over the last three seasons, the Super Bowl champion had an average offensive line of -35.97, 33 hits, and 156 hurries, admittedly somewhat buoyed by the Saints' offensive line and greatly tanked by just how bad the Giants' line was.

But as far as the numbers themselves, while the Bears' could definitely use some work in the rating, they're right there in terms of hits allowed and hurries allowed. And as far as the rating is concerned, there's a couple things definitely in the offing to drive that up. And one of those things isn't Gabe Carimi, surprise surprise.

First, I don't think Louis is going to grade to a -20.9 in pass-blocking this season, as he was out of position much of the time and once he was figured out, well, that was the end of that. At tackle, he had four games where he graded overall below -5, and was never positive past Week 11 - in pass-blocking, he graded at a -7.1 against Kansas City and -4.4 against Minnesota in round two. He won't be that bad again because he won't be playing at tackle again, hopefully. In a good-case scenario, that might improve the rating itself by ten points.

Second, if people are willing to extrapolate Edwin Williams' team-high +1.4 pass-block rating into a full 1000 snaps, that's about another 1.3 or 1.4. Instead, I'll look at Webb, whose -15.8 is already a massive improvement on last year's -29.4. He could shave another five to eight points on that this season, which could pull him into decent respectability.

Then there's Frank Omiyale, who was -8.3 himself in pass protection.

Then you add in the scheme change, where we can only hope that Mike Tice won't send Jay Cutler back on deep seven-stop drops to be intended as tackling practice, and the improved offensive toolshed that he has to work with, and you begin to remember that each of the last three champions were also top-10 offenses and top-5 passing offenses despite their offensive line troubles (particularly in the cases of Green Bay and New York).

If things are to fall apart in 2012, the Bears' O-line won't be the unit to make or break the season. Teams win with good lines and bad lines. Good offenses find ways to produce, and above all, that comes to the coordinator and personnel. If the coordinator and personnel are on the same page, the offensive line won't be the piece that holds the team back.

Does an offensive line help? Yes, no doubt. But with the last two champions particularly, even when stacked against the 2009 Saints, the offenses are still right there.

So how much better must the offensive line protect? They could be there already.