By Dan Pompei Chicago Tribune
They took care of their vegetables before beginning to contemplate dessert. And now they get their cake — the Packers in the NFC champion ship game. Whether they get to eat it too depends on if their offensive line can handle Dom Capers’ blitzing defense.
If there is one story from this Bears season, it is their offensive line.
How it was inadequate at the start.
How it has evolved and improved through indivi dual effort, relentless coaching and continuity.
And how it ultimately will decide if this team achieves all it desires.
The Seahawks likely did not recognize the Bears line from the way it played in October. That line allowed six sacks of Jay Cutler, and pressure was a consistent problem. This line allowed three sacks, and Cutler often had enough time in the pocket to wash his hands thoroughly.
What’s more, the line opened holes for 124 rushing yards from the running backs — 82 more than they had in the previous meeting.
“The offensive line came off the ball,” said Chester Taylor, who had 44 yards on 11 carries. “They won the line of scrimmage. When they get blocks like that, me and Matt (Forte) get big holes.”
Such praise was almost unfathomable a few months ago.
“We wanted to answer some questions about the last time we played them,” center Olin Kreutz said. “Hopefully we did.”
That game was Chris Williams’ first at left guard and J’Marcus Webb’s second at right tackle. The two have played 11 games at the positions since.
“Last time we were still trying to figure some things out,” left tackle Frank Omiyale said. “We’ve come a long way since Week 6.”
How far the line has come was evident in the Seahawks’ game plan. In October, the Seahawks blitzed 21 times and capitalized on the Bears’ inexperience and unfamiliarity. On Sunday, the Seahawks rarely rushed more than four.
The linemen owe Greg Olsen a thick T-bone steak for that. When the Seahawks called for a man-to-man defense with safety Lawyer Milloy on Olsen about four minutes into the game, Olsen streaked by Milloy down the seam and caught a pass that resulted in a 58-yard touchdown. After that, Seahawks coaches weren’t so confident calling for blitzes with man-to-man coverage.
In the first meeting, five of the Seahawks’ sacks came when a pass rusher got to Cutler without being blocked. Those were communication failures and blown assignments. Kreutz said the line had none of those Sunday.
They won’t be able to afford many against the Packers either.
You almost couldn’t have blamed the Bears if they had been looking ahead. Everybody else was.
Many of the Bears watched the Packers put a whipping on the Falcons from their downtown hotel rooms Saturday night. But they said they didn’t allow themselves to get too excited about the possibility of playing their main rival at home for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
“Going into this game, you can only look at Seattle,” coach Lovie Smith said. “You can only get a win with Seattle. We had to get a win with Seattle.
“Now that we’ve beaten the Seahawks, it just doesn’t get any better as I see it than the NFC championship coming down to the Packers coming down to our turf. The Packers and Bears to finish it up, that’s how it should be.”
The Packers have been installed as three-point favorites, putting the Bears in their familiar and preferred role of underdog.
The Packers’ victory over the Falcons was more impressive than the Bears’ victory over the Seahawks because the score was more lopsided and they were on the road against the NFC’s top seed. But the Bears were almost as impressive as the circumstances allowed them to be.
The Packers are the darlings of the playoffs, the team no one wants to play.
The Bears? They are the team that can’t block anyone. In fact, they gave up nine sacks to the Packers in two regular-season meetings.
“We know what kind of playmakers we have and that if we block, it’s going to be hard for the other team to stop us,” Kreutz said.
The Bears offensive line, then, likely will be the story of the NFC championship game. As it has been the story of the Bears season.