The offensive lines are killing these three NFC playoff contenders

New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the second half of their NFL football game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana November 2, 2009. New Orleans won the game 35-27. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)

One of two things is going to happen if the Bears, Eagles and Falcons don’t get their issues along the offensive line figured out. They’re either going to get their quarterbacks killed and miss the playoffs, or they’re going to get their quarterbacks severely beaten and miss the playoffs. Either way, the season won’t end pretty for any of these teams.

It would be a gross understatement to say that the season hasn’t exactly started the way the Bears, Eagles and Falcons had envisioned. All three teams are 1-2 and are reeling at the moment. Most, not all, of their struggles can be pinned on the play of their lines. While the Bears’ front five gets scrutinized the most, the Falcons’ protection has easily been the worst in the league after three games. For those who tuned into that Sunday night game against the Eagles, you witnessed Trent Cole treat Atlanta LT Sam Baker like a revolving door to Matt Ryan.

Philadelphia has been opening up lanes for LeSean McCoy, but every lineman outside of tackle Jason Peters has struggled thus far in pass protection. Everyone knew the line was a question mark coming into the season and it certainly has been. The biggest culprit in pass protection has been rookie Jason Kelce, but it’s not like Todd Herremans and Kyle DeVan have done Michael Vick any favors either.

So what can be done? For Chicago, Mike Martz can start giving the ball more to Matt Forte. I realize that starting RT Gabe Carimi is injured and the front five hasn’t gotten much push in the running game but it’s criminal that Forte only received nine carries last Sunday. Lovie Smith had a sit-down with Martz during the team’s bye week last year and told him he needed to have a more balanced attack. The result was positive, as the Bears’ line played much better in the second half and the team wound up in the NFC Championship Game. This time, Smith may need to have that little chitchat earlier in the season.

For the Falcons, one option they have is to run the no-huddle exclusively, or at least more often. Ryan has had a ton of success running the hurry up since his rookie year and coordinator Mike Mularkey is a disciple of Sam Wyche, who ran the no-huddle with the Bengals in the mid 80s. The only time Atlanta’s offense has moved the ball in the last two weeks is when Ryan has been in the hurry up, which keeps defenses vanilla and slows down the edge rushers that have given the O-line fits. The Falcons ran the no-huddle in the first quarter last year in a win over Baltimore and had plenty of success with it. If Mularkey ran the offense more frequently, maybe the line could start to build some confidence. (It also wouldn’t hurt to bench Baker, who is clearly a bust at this point in his career.)

One of the reasons the Eagles’ line has had issues is because Vick has a tendency to hold the ball too long. But even if Vick made faster decisions it doesn’t change the fact that guys like Kelce have to grow up fast. When it comes to Philadelphia, the O-line might just need more time to gel.

In reality, allowing the line to develop cohesion might be the best thing for all of these teams. A big part of Tom Brady’s success in New England is because his line has played together for years. Unfortunately for the Bears, Eagles and Falcons, they don’t have years to wait. The health of their quarterbacks and their seasons hang in the balance.

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Is this a make or break year for Matt Forte?

After Matt Forte racked up 1,715 total yards and 12 touchdowns his rookie year in 2008, the Bears felt as though they had a star in the making. He drew comparisons to Edgerrin James, given the backs’ similarities in balance, body control and burst.

But then something happened in Forte’s second year. His play dramatically fell off and while some like to chalk it up to a sophomore slump, the issues were deeper than that. The offensive line struggled to open holes for him and somewhere along the way he lost his confidence. He also had his knee scoped after the season, which might suggest that he played hurt too. It wasn’t just one thing that affected his play – it was a culmination of factors that limited him to fewer than 1,000 rushing yards and only four total touchdowns.

Whether Forte is due for a bounce back campaign or not, there will be one significant change this year than there was in 2009. And he goes by the name of Chester Taylor. The Bears didn’t have an answer for a slumping Forte last year, but this season Taylor is ready and willing to take over at the drop of a hat. The former Viking isn’t a one-man wrecking crew, but he has proven to be an effective back over his career and won’t hesitate to seize the moment if Forte struggles.

While suggesting that this is a make or break year for Forte is a bit extreme (after all, he’s only in his third year), he now has competition for touches. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the presence of Taylor will help Forte stay fresh throughout the season and instill some of that confidence that he lost in ’09.

Of course, no matter who runs the ball, the offensive line must do a better jump opening up holes. There’s reason to believe that the Bears’ O-line will be just as bad as it was last year, as GM Jerry Angelo did nothing to address the massive issue in the offseason. The additions of Taylor, defensive end Julius Peppers and safety Chris Harris certainly make this team better, but sliding Frank Omiyale from guard to right tackle doesn’t constitute fixing the offensive line. So it’ll be interesting to see if Forte can build off the success he had in his rookie year, or if the Bears’ running game will once again fall apart at the feet of their offensive line.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

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