Sam Mustipher has been somewhat of an afterthought to start his NFL career, but when Sunday came around, the spotlight arguably shone brighter on him than any other Chicago offensive lineman.
Mustipher played in his first full NFL game on Sunday, replacing the injured Cody Whitehair as the Bears’ starting center for their matchup against the Saints. The second-year, undrafted free agent signing had seen playing time the previous week against the Rams but had not played in a full regular season game prior to this week.
Considering the Bears’ struggles along their offensive line in 2020, the thought of starting a backup center alongside a unit that has already struggled with injuries elsewhere was a worrisome one.
Mustipher did display some growing pains in his first start, but the important takeaway from his performance against New Orleans was that he played a lot better than many expected him to.
In this film breakdown, we are going to take a look at what Mustipher did right on Sunday, as well as where he can improve going forward.
This play was a quick slant out to Anthony Miller, so winning immediately at the point of attack is crucial from an offensive lineman’s standpoint. Mustipher doesn’t have a defender lining up directly over him, but the 2i defensive tackle, No. 90 Malcolm Brown, bounces over to the opposite A gap, giving the center someone to work on. Mustipher does a great job of rolling his hips into contact and adjusts his set point to square up to the defender. He showcases impressive agility in pass protection and is able to change direction easily. That quickness in recognized and acting upon the defensive lineman’s cut across his body helped him keep a clean pocket for Nick Foles on the short dump-off.
On this play, Mustipher is utilized as a pulling lineman for the run play. He shows off good agility and acceleration coming out of his stance, which can be difficult for a center, considering the focus that has to be given towards snapping the ball. He takes a precise angle to No. 56 Demario Davis and gets ideal hand placement, lodging his right hand underneath the linebacker’s right arm. He, again, does a good job of rolling his hips into contact and sealing off Davis at the point of attack. David Montgomery is able to quickly identify the open lane created by Mustipher’s block, and while the play doesn’t result in a big gain due to Germain Ifedi proving unable to get to No. 47 Alex Anzalone at the second level, Mustipher does a good job of executing his assignment.
Mustipher actually gets some work right off the snap on this play, with Brown lining up as the nose tackle right over him. Foles’ first read is to hit Miller with the short curl route against zone coverage, so again, winning at the initial point of contact is crucial for an offensive lineman here. That’s exactly what Mustipher does, as he blocks with active hands and is able to keep his weight underneath him. No. 93 David Onyemata bounces slightly inside on his rush, but Ifedi does a good job of controlling his man at the point of attack. These two occurrences cause the Saints’ interior rush to stall, and once Brown loses his balance, Mustipher uses his hands to swipe down and knock the defender to the ground.
Mustipher is a bit of a smaller blocker at 6-foot-2 and 311 pounds, and while that can provide for some power issues at the line of scrimmage (more on that later), he didn’t have any problems on this rush. No. 99 Shy Tuttle starts off here as the 1-technique and attacks Mustipher’s outside shoulder, but the center is able to use his quickness to burst out of his stance and square up directly to Tuttle. He does a good job of getting his weight underneath him ay the initial point of contact, and his constant hand fighting allows him to maintain proper leverage in between the defender’s shoulder pads.
This next play is an outside-zone run, and while the overall end result of the play isn’t sexy, Mustipher executes his assignment here. He pulls off the combo block effectively, bursting out of his stance and accelerating to assist Ifedi on the temporary double-team of Brown. Mustipher does a good job of keeping his eyes on the second level when engaged with Brown, constantly scanning the field for a defender to pick up. He knows that he might be knocked off balance if he climbs to the second level to pick up Davis too quickly, so he stays locked onto Brown until Davis is within his range. Mustipher then disengages, rolls his hips into contact and does a very nice job of sealing off the linebacker. Montgomery could have likely had a somewhat larger gain if he cut up the A gap after Mustipher’s seal, but his agility and contact balance still allows him to gain two or three more yards than initially appeared likely.
On this pass protection rep, Mustipher heads to the 1-technique right off the snap. While his pads are a bit high initially, Rashaad Coward being available on the double-team helped him out a bit. Rather, it’s Mustipher ability to recognize the incoming stunt from the edge rusher that’s impressive. Ifedi picks up the stunt pretty well, too, but the undrafted free agent does a good job of passing the 1-tech off to Coward and getting his hands on the edge rusher up the middle. He showed nice awareness for someone as inexperienced at the NFL level as he is, and had he not picked up on the stunt, there’s a chance Foles could have faced more pressure.
As one would expect, it wasn’t a flawless outing for Mustipher in his first career start. He had a couple of reps where he ended up getting beat, both in pass protection and as a run blocker. Here, he takes his first step to the right, but Brown cuts across his body and shoots up the left-side A gap. Mustipher quickly retreats into recovery mode, heading into an upright stance in order to rush over and try and prevent Brown from penetrating the backfield. This prevents him from getting his own weight underneath him, which in turn, affects his balance and core strength at the point of attack. He lunges forward, which makes his sense of balance and overall power even worse. That initial misstep off the snap allowed Brown to get the upper hand on the rush, and it also prevented Mustipher from picking up the stunting Onyemata that Coward passed off to him. The incoming pressure saw Foles panic under pressure, force the bad throw and turn the ball over.
The following rep likely fell apart due to general confusion amongst the offensive line, and Mustipher played some role in that disarray. Ifedi appeared to be expecting Davis to blitz when lined up over the right guard’s outside shoulder, but that blitz never came. Mustipher passes the 1-tech Onyemata over to Ifedi to help Coward out with a double-team on the 3-tech defender, but by the time both Mustipher and Ifedi realize their mistake, the interior was already starting to collapse. Mustipher pops upright when trying to block the 3-tech, which hinders his effectiveness and power at the point of attack. He gets thrown off balance when trying to cut back to stop Onyemata and gets thrown in the spin cycle.
All in all, Mustipher wasn’t perfect, but no undrafted free agent making his first NFL start would be. However, more often than not, he looked athletic and intelligent, and that helped him hold his own against the Saints’ defensive front.
When compared to his peers along the offensive line, the Notre Dame alumnus may have had the best game of them all. Granted, that’s not saying much, but he looked pretty good overall.
It’s unknown exactly how long Whitehair will be out of action, but even when he comes back, the Bears may want to consider finding a way to keep Mustipher in the starting lineup. Rashaad Coward has struggled mightily at left guard, so keeping one of Mustipher or Whitehair at center and sliding the other to guard may be a decision worth thinking about for Chicago’s coaching staff.
It’s also far too early to deem Mustipher a long-term starting option. He has played in one full NFL game and part of another one, so he still has a small resumé to go off of. How he performs for the rest of the season will tell more about his overall future with the team, but the way he played on Sunday could indicate he at least stay on the active roster full-time.
In a season that has been plagued by cringeworthy offensive line play, watching Mustipher on Sunday may provide the Bears with a little bit of relief in these trying times.