Braxton Jones had to recalibrate the clock in his head.
The Bears rookie left tackle usually has a good idea of when a quarterback will throw the ball. But with Justin Fields, he has to be doubly sure. A few times during training camp, he expected the coaches to whistle a dead play, only for Fields to keep him alive with his legs.
“Then two seconds later my guy reacts to the play,” Jones said.
The Bears offensive line has more question marks this season than any other position group. Last year, Fields was sacked on 11.8% of his losses, the highest percentage in the league. New Bears general manager Ryan Poles revised the line – but filled the holes with unproven players. Three of the five projected starters have 10 combined NFL starts.
Fields’ mobility will save the line — “He’s got a phenomenal ability to extend plays,” center Sam Mustipher said — but it also presents a challenge for his blockers.
“I got used to it,” Jones said. “You don’t stop. I can’t really stop. You just keep moving forward. That’s why I say you live and die by it. I would say I experience it more often than not.
The Bears think they’re better equipped this season to block a scrambling QB. Shortly after hiring Poles and trainer Matt Eber-flus, they decided their linemen needed to cut weight and add speed to block in the out-of-zone running pattern. It also helps when Fields is running.
“You have to finish your block a little longer,” guard Cody Whitehair said. “Because he’s so mobile, he gets out of tackles easily.”
If Rule #1 is never stop blocking – “Play through the echo of the whistle,” Mustipher said – then Rule #2 shouldn’t stand. Because the blockers turn their backs on Fields, they’re the last to know when he starts falling out. Setters see him first and often move away from the blocker to chase Fields. This may lead to calls being held at a location on the court where officials can easily see the penalty.
“You don’t want to hang on,” right tackle Larry Borom said. “You have to have that awareness and let go.”
This preseason, the line has only been called for one holding penalty — a good sign for a unit with plenty of questions.
The Bears also have a willingness to mix and match while trying to find the right combination. They need to find the top five linemen, both for this year and whenever their next good team takes the field. But this reorganization was done at the expense of chemistry.
It will continue throughout the season. On Wednesday, the Bears claimed Alex Leatherwood, the Raiders’ 2021 first-round pick, and gave him snaps as a backup right tackle in practice. On Thursday, they worked on former Pro Bowl guard Kelechi Osemele, who has played just eight games in the past three years. On Friday, they added Zachary Thomas, one of their sixth-round picks this spring, to the practice squad.
They plan to churn their line all season until they find what they want.
“It’s important to be out there and play with your teammates and your jelly,” said assistant general manager Ian Cunningham, who like the Poles is a former offensive lineman. “I think room matters too and depth matters. So versatility in the back. . . .
“You can never have too many offensive linemen. And then, being in this room, bonding together, on the training ground, we have a great group. It all counts.
Especially when Fields has the ball in hand.
“Just try to protect him in any way you can,” Mustipher said.