To the untrained eye, assessing O-line play can be among the tougher tasks for football fans and analysts alike.
Bears fans and analysts, on the other hand, should have little difficulty in pinpointing the team’s O-line as its single biggest concern at the bye week.
For starters, the penalties have reached almost epidemic proportions, with Charles Leno the unit’s biggest transgressor.
Consider that Leno’s eight accepted penalties are double that of the Bears’ second-most-frequent culprit, Prince Amukamara, and already one more than Leno had accepted in 17 starts last season.
“That just sucks because that’s one thing I want to cut down,” Leno, who trimmed his penalties from a career-high 13 in 2017 to 7 in his Pro Bowl alternate 2018 campaign, told Bears Insider Sunday. “It’s going the opposite way. It is what it is. Sometimes, I think it’s on the refs.
“But at the end of the day, it’s on me. I need to do a better job.”
It’s not only that Leno is drawing flags, it’s that they're flying at terribly inopportune times. His first of three penalties against the Raiders stalled a drive and prevented the Bears from potentially striking first in a first half they ultimately finished down 17-0.
Both of Leno's Week 1 penalties were drive killers in a game when first downs, much less points, came at a premium.
Leno has already stalled four drives with flags this season for an offense that ranks 27th in first downs per game. Call out the quarterbacks or the play calling — they also must improve — but that isn't how to maximize a special defense.
“We’re just gonna go to work. There’s no more excuses. No finger pointing. We’re gonna do some searching into the bye week,” he said. “I know I’m going to do some self-scouting.”
It’s unlikely that the thorough evaluation of his players that Matt Nagy also vowed to do this week leads to a decision that involves replacing Leno, who has two seasons remaining on the four-year, $37 million contract extension he received in the 2017 preseason.
Remember, few players created more consternation with their performance this summer than swing OT Cornelius Lucas. He acquitted himself fairly well in a spot start for RT Bobby Massie in Washington, but that was on the right side against among the worst teams in football.
Leno’s costly mistakes might make his poor play easier for everyone to see and scrutinize, but it’s possible Kyle Long — the unit’s most accomplished performer and the team’s longest-tenured homegrown player — has been as big or bigger of a detriment to a run game that ranks 29th in yards per rush, down two spots from last season, despite wholesale backfield changes and all five O-linemen back.
And even after valuable utility OG Ted Larsen injured his knee vs. the Minnesota Vikings and didn't travel to London, it’s still possible the Bears decide during the bye week that Rashaad Coward, gives them a better chance than Long to help fix the run game.
Coward, the converted Old Dominion D-lineman, earned high marks for his work replacing Larsen vs. the Vikings in his most extensive NFL regular-season action to date. He looked smooth and agile on the move, a must in Nagy and O-line coach Harry Hiestand's much maligned run-blocking scheme.
Conversely, Long returned in London from the hip injury that sidelined him the previous week, looking, sadly, like a shadow of the player who used to be among the game's most athletic and physical blockers.
Unlike James Daniels and Cody Whitehair, the youngster former second-rounders who swapped positions in the offseason — giving them a longer grace period and supposedly moving them closer to their ceilings — Long is on the wrong side of 30 now, probably increasing the unlikelihood of him regaining his prior form.
The pressure is rising on Bears quarterbacks, and on Nagy, to get the offense pointed in the right direction. Although Long is hardly the only issue, giving Coward a shot, and trusting Leno can rediscover his focus, might be their best hopes right now.