Braxton Jones had to recalibrate the clock in his head.
The Bears’ rookie left tackle typically has a good sense of when a quarterback will throw the ball. With Justin Fields, though, he needs to be doubly sure. A few times during training camp, he expected coaches to blow a play dead — only for Fields to keep it alive with his legs.
“Then, two seconds later,” he said, “my guy’s reacting to the play.”
The Bears’ offensive line has more question marks entering the season than any other position group. Last year, the Bears allowed Fields to get sacked on 11.8 percent of his dropbacks, the highest percentage in the league. Bears general manager Ryan Poles overhauled the line — but filled holes with players who have question marks. Three of the five projected starters have a combined 10 NFL starts among them.
Fields’ mobility will save the line — “He has a phenomenal ability to extend plays,” center Sam Mustipher said — but it also presents a challenge for his blockers.
“I got more used to it,” Jones said. “You just don’t stop. Can’t really stop. You just keep on going.
“That’s why I say you live and die by it. I’d say I live by it more times than not.”
The Bears think they’re better-equipped this season to block for a scrambling quarterback. Shortly after Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus were hired, they decided their linemen needed to lose weight and add speed to block in the Bears’ outside zone run scheme. That helps when Fields runs, too.
“You gotta finish your block a little bit longer,” guard Cody Whitehair said. “Because he is so mobile, he gets out of tackles easily.”
If Rule No. 1 is to never stop blocking — “Play through the echo of the whistle,” Mustipher said –then No. 2 is not to hold. Because blockers have their back to Fields, they’re the last to know when he starts scrambling. Pass-rushers see it first, and often jerk themselves away from the blocker to chase Fields down.That can lead to holding calls — at a spot on the field where officials can easily see the penalty.
“You don’t wanna get a hold,” right tackle Larry Borom said. “You’ve got to have that awareness and let go.”
This preseason, the Bears offensive line has been called for only one holding penalty. That’s a good sign for a unit with a lot of questions.
The Bears’ willingness to mix-and-match linemen while trying to find the right combination is a noble one. They need to find the best five players — both for this year and whenever their next good team will take the field. But that shuffling has come at the expense of chemistry.
It will continue throughout the season. Wednesday, the Bears claimed former Raiders first-round pick Alex Leatherwood, who took backup snaps at right tackle in practice. Thursday, they worked out former Pro Bowl guard Kelechi Osemele, who’s played in only eight games the last three years. Friday, they added their own former draft pick, Zachary Thomas, back to the practice squad.
The Bears figure to churn their line all season long, until they find what they want.
“It does matter to be out there and play with your teammates and gel,” said assistant general manager Ian Cunningham, who, like Poles, is a former offensive lineman. “I do think the room matters, too, and the depth matters. So, versatility on the back end …
“You can never have too many offensive linemen. And then being in that room, bonding together, out on the practice field, we have a great group. All of that matters.”
Especially when Fields has the ball in his hand.
“Just try to protect him in any way possible,” Mustipher said.