Prior days explored the tackles and guards, and today will focus on center, with a bonus glance at tight end and wide receiver blocking.
Let’s start with center, the last position on the offensive line and an area that has been held down exclusively by Sam Mustipher for the last two seasons.
The table below shows how Mustipher held up in pass protection compared to the 39 centers around the NFL who had at least 200 pass blocking snaps. All data is from Pro Football Focus (PFF), and true pass sets are intended to remove plays designed to minimize the pass rush, such as screens, play action, and rollout. Cells highlighted in green indicate a rank in the top 25%, while red indicates the bottom 25%.
There’s really only one takeaway here: Sam Mustipher is awful in pass protection. Every column that’s not red just missed the cutoff. (Every Bears fan already knows this, so I don’t think we’re breaking any new ground.)
By now, most fans have come to terms with what the 2022 season is going to be. And what it’s going to be is ugly. But this season won’t be a wasted one if the team drains every ounce of evaluative sweat out of this gym towel of a roster. What do they need to do short-term?
(1) Get Velus Jones into the offense. It is understandable to want his speed involved in the punt return game, but that experiment has failed with gusto. Jones brings a dimension to the offense – speed – that doesn’t currently exist. Oh, he’s struggling with the playbook? Adjust the playbook! You’re telling me Jones is incapable of running 3-4 go routes a game to take the top off the defense? You’re telling me he can’t consistently motion as a decoy? He’s the only player on this roster capable of turning a bubble screen into a 25-yard gain. Play him and commit to getting him five touches a game.
(2) Acknowledge David Montgomery is not your best running back. DBB’s Data has been all over this, for seemingly years, but it’s now obvious that Montgomery is not a better running back than Khalil Herbert. Is he more valuable in the passing game? Yes. And that should guarantee him a role in the offense. But if the Bears are considering giving Montgomery big money, they have completely lost the plot. (For the record, I don’t believe they are.) Start Herbert. Work Montgomery into the game. Start thinking about 2023.
(3) Get Sam Mustipher off the field / Alex Leatherwood on it. Move Lucas Patrick – if healthy – to center and bring the former Raider on to play guard. It is time to start experimenting with this offensive line at just about every position but the two tackles, where the Bears benefit from seeing Braxton Jones and Larry Borom with a full season of work. Leatherwood’s early career has been a disappointment, but he plays with aggression and that aggression should work for this rushing attack. (And if Leatherwood doesn’t work out, stick Riley Reiff into the lineup. That’s still a move for the future as Patrick profiles better at center than guard, long-term.)
The Bears are seeing, with Kyler Gordon, the importance of letting young players play. Gordon looked like the worst corner in the sport for four weeks but has completely turned his season around. Get as many of these kids on the field as possible and keep them there.
The 2022 Chicago Bears plan to run the ball and play strong defense, but the lack of upgrades along the offensive line could make that hard to do. While the weapons surrounding Justin Fields aren’t ideal, one can certainly make arguments for Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney as being high-level players at their positions. Add in David Montgomery, Byron Pringle and Velus Jones Jr. and, well, you get the argument.
But the offensive line? Ryan Poles has left the team in a tricky position.
The most glaring hole on the entire roster right now is right guard where Sam Mustipher could potentially start. Nothing against Mustipher — who showed flashes of being a pretty good center in 2020 — but he has never played the position before and doesn’t seem to be a fit in any way. The team did sign Dakota Dozier, a player who didn’t even make the Vikings roster last year. (And that was a bad offensive line too.) The other options are rookies who were taken late on day three.
Poles can’t even claim to disagree with the assessment of the right guard position. He signed Ryan Bates to an offer sheet, only to revert back to ignoring the position once the Bills matched it.
The most likely bet is that the player who starts the season at right guard for the Bears isn’t on the roster. They have to be hoping that either a viable player becomes available, or an existing player lowers his price tag. Otherwise, we’re looking at flat out negligence and it’s the worst kind of negligence because it could get the team’s young quarterback hurt.
It wasn’t a particularly unique affair. The Bears have lost this game to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers plenty of times. If you need additional details beyond which is provided below, search the archives and find all the recaps of those games.
Justin Fields continues to show signs, and that’s all you are asking for each week from a rookie quarterback. The touchdown drive he led in the fourth quarter, that could easily have been derailed by a nonsense holding penalty on Sam Mustipher, was a thing of beauty.
The Bears have to open up this offense for Fields moving forward and that should start Sunday against Tampa. The Bucs have a terrible secondary but are impossible to run against.
The clock still has to speed up for Fields. Sunday, his “run clock” was there. When he saw the space, he took it. But he’s still struggling to recognize how fast these pass rushers are. He ain’t playing Rutgers anymore. Once he starts to feel it, and it’ll be soon, he’ll stop taking unnecessary sacks.
The refs were not to blame for this Bears loss. But they were dreadful.
Has an offsides ever been missed before? There are officials literally staring down the line of scrimmage pre-snap.
The hold on Mustipher and pass interference on Jaylon Johnson were both nonsense.
I still don’t understand the OPI on Green Bay, or how that touchdown catch was originally ruled incomplete. Neither were close calls.
Why was Justin Fields’ timeout attempt rejected? I have never seen that before.
Aaron Rodgers was the best player on the field. Again. And it’s not surprising when the best player on the field wins, especially when that player is a quarterback. That’s the goal for the Justin Fields Chicago Bears. They have to get there.
The 2021 season probably won’t be one the Bears highlight, but it could be important for determining the future of the franchise. They have an odd mix of veterans and young players, all needing to prove themselves. They have key positions that didn’t have battles, but also don’t have sure things locked in.
We know Justin Fields is ultimately going to be the straw that stirs the drink, hopefully for the next two decades. But the Bears need to determine two things: (a) who will be surrounding Fields and (b) how will they make life easier for the quarterback.
With that, here are the ten most important Bears of 2021, other than Fields, of course.
10. Akiem Hicks
Hicks flashed greatness last year, then seemed to run out of gas.
His job was different last year without Eddie Goldman; teams were able to focus more on him in the running game. But then you’d see the spurt; he’d throw a guard three yards back and take out a running back in the backfield.
Hicks is in a contract year and the Bears have to know what he has left before deciding what to do.
9. Sam Mustipher
Mustipher was a legitimately good center last year and could be a building block going forward. The team didn’t consider replacing him. He needs to reward that confidence.
8. Darnell Mooney
If teams are going to take Allen Robinson away, Mooney needs to make them pay. The wide receiver needs to take a significant step in his sophomore season.
In the swagger department, Kevin Fishbain, in The Athletic, can tell you about “the takeaway bucket — a blue laundry bin that gets wheeled onto the field for a defensive player to dunk the ball in after he takes it away from the offense.” These things are goofy but players rally around them.
Bilal Nichols was arguably the breakout star of the 2020 Chicago Bears but he might be the actual star of this group of the end of 2021. The best part of this for Desai is Nichols’ emergence should allow them to keep Akiem Hicks on a pitch count for most of the season. (His recent foot issues are just another in a series of injuries common for a declining superstar.)
Sam Mustipher was asked what he did to put on weight this off-season. His answer? Lou Malnati’s. Sam Mustipher is a smart, smart man. (After the debacle of the last 18 months, Malnati’s will be rejoining DBB as a crucial partner this coming season. More details – and pizza giveaways – to come.)
From inside Halas Hall there is serious optimism regarding Kindle Vildor. When I asked what that optimism means I was simply told (via text): “They’re not going to get too excited until they see it on the field. But they’re seeing it in practice.” Corner is going to be a weakness for this group. But if their pass rush delivers as it should, this group may be competent enough to hold up.
The quarterback position has been a real strength in these early days. Andy Dalton has been the stable, veteran presence the Bears expected but he’s also had a ton of zip on the fastball. He’s smart enough to know that the only way he remains the starting quarterback is by playing Justin Fields onto the bench. Fields has all the talent in the world – everybody at these practices sees that – and his ascension is only a matter of time.
One Tweet from Brad Biggs stood out to me. “Justin Fields to Jesse James is a thing that’s starting to happen more often for the #Bears.” In this offense, the tight ends are the QB’s best friends. Fields seems to be learning that quickly.
I would have been shocked if Fields out-performed Dalton as this early stage. None of Fields’ athleticism is displayed in these practice sessions. When the pads go on, and Fields is on the move, that’s when Dalton will have to up his game.
Cairo Santos has finally solidified the kicker position post-Robbie Gould. I don’t miss writing about kickers in July and August.
The Chicago Bears seem to have answers on the interior of their offensive line, thanks to a former undrafted rookie. Both Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy went out of their way last week to compliment Sam Mustipher as being a calming presence on their offensive line and essential to the improvement they showed down the stretch.
“I can’t say enough about Sam Mustipher, we’re so lucky to have him,” Ryan Pace told Jeff Joniak and Tom Thayer last week. “His leadership, his intelligence, his ability to calm everybody down. It’s infectious. He’s the guy sprinting 20 yards down field, picking up the ball carrier, leading the whole group.”
In an interview with Dan Wiederer and Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, Matt Nagy offered similar remarks.
“Things really got calm,” Nagy said about when Mustipher entered the lineup. “He proved to use that he is more than capable of being a starting center in the NFL. The number one thing he brings is leadership. He’s such a multiplier.”
A month ago it looked like the Chicago Bears were heading towards a full-scale rebuild. But after two straight wins and a few quality offensive performances, the Bears might be finding they already have answers to some expected offseason questions.
The most significant answers are on the offensive side of the ball where Matt Nagy appears to have fixed what was wrong, even if that meant partially by stepping aside. It’s easy to say that Nagy giving up play calling was a negative on him, but fans should know better. The best Bears coach in recent history, Lovie Smith, had to convince his buddy Rod Marinelli to take defensive play calling away from him and we have seen numerous offensive geniuses – Sean Payton, Andy Reid come to mind – do the same for at least a short period of time.
While he isn’t calling the plays, Nagy still has oversight over the offense. It’s still his direction the team is following and his hires of Bill Lazor and Juan Castillo are suddenly looking fantastic. Lazor has found ways to consistently keep the offense simple for Mitch Trubisky and Castillo is getting standout play from undrafted free agents Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, two players who certainly look as if they could compete for starting spots next year.
Mustipher has played at a high level since entering the lineup against the Saints on Nov. 1. An injury knocked him out the next few weeks, but he returned Nov. 29 and seems to have locked down the job. In his five starts, the Bears have averaged 7.8 yards per carry when they run behind him. In all other games they’ve averaged 3.9 yards per carry.
Theoretically, most would be fine with the Bears going into the 2021 season with Leno, Whitehair and Mustipher taking up three of the five spots while James Daniels and Alex Bars compete at right guard. While they’d surely like to bring in more young depth, what once looked to be a full rebuild of the offensive line could now be the team focusing on just the tackle positions.
With that, we’ve realized that David Montgomery is a legitimate stud when he has blocking. Suddenly, the Bears just might have a piece to build their offense around.