<
>

Hilgy knows: It's not that bad

CHICAGO -- It's hard not to blame the Chicago Bears' offensive line for Sunday's mess.

It's hard not to see disaster coming again for the Bears at the hands of the Green Bay Packers this Sunday. It's hard not to look past the Packers and fear even the Carolina Panthers' early offensive potency. And it's especially hard to envision Jay Cutler making it through this NFL season healthy.

But former Bears center Jay Hilgenberg is not panicking. For one, it's because every offensive lineman has been where the Bears were Sunday.

"Anyone who plays football has been through an ordeal like that," said Hilgenberg, an analyst for the Bears' radio network, WBMM-780. "[The Superdome] is a tough place to play with the noise and crowd, and they're a good team."

A day after the Saints' defense sacked Cutler six times in a thorough 30-13 victory at the Superdome, Hilgenberg said he believes Cutler will survive this season physically, and tough as it is, we should not overreact to Sunday's loss by placing too much on the shoulders of the offensive line.

"It was a tough game for them, and it's a tough place to pass block and a tough place to play from behind," Hilgenberg said. "But I do think this line will be a good pass-blocking line. What I noticed against Atlanta was how much they help each other. They work from the inside out. They secure the inside, and then you see the guards bounce outside and help the tackles. I think they have a lot of respect for each other, and they're a pretty close group that's going to become tighter from this because they know the only guys who have their back is themselves."

What Hilgenberg could not stomach in watching Sunday's game were certain aspects of the play calling -- one in particular.

"If I was a coach, I would have a hard time sleeping, knowing I had a tight end [Kellen Davis] blocking a defensive end on a 5-to-7-step drop," Hilgenberg said. "At the end of the line, with all that crowd noise, it's one you wouldn't want to call many times."

He was referring, of course, to the sack early in the third quarter, when Saints defensive end Turk McBride blew past Davis to slam Cutler from behind, forcing a fumble that was recovered by New Orleans at the Bears' 29-yard line. Five plays later, Drew Brees threw the second of his three touchdown passes on the day to give the Saints a 23-13 lead.

It may not have been so bad had Davis not been entrusted to block Cutler's blind side. And if nothing else, judging from the way the play seemed to unfold in slow motion, maybe Davis or someone could have warned Cutler.

"I know [former Bears quarterback Jim] McMahon heard me a couple times, no doubt about it," Hilgenberg said. "You don't care as much if it's intercepted, you just don't want to give up a sack. You get your quarterback hurt, that's the worst thing in the world."


But Hilgenberg doesn't feel the line is without hope, despite the fact that the Bears' first two opponents have racked up 11 sacks in the first two weeks of the season, well ahead of the league-worst pace they had last season when teams sacked Bears quarterbacks 56 times.

For starters, he had high praise for the job Roberto Garza is doing at center in place of the departed Olin Kreutz.

"I was always a believer that a center can't play another position [and vice versa]," he said. "All through my career, when they'd try guards or tackles at center, you could tell they just aren't naturals at it and it just doesn't work. But I've been very impressed with Roberto. You can tell he's the captain of that offense, and he has stepped right into the role of being center, and he's doing a solid job."

He also said he liked what Lance Louis was doing at guard until he injured his ankle and is even hopeful about the future of oft-penalized Frank Omiyale.

"Other than his two usual false starts, his pass sets looked really good," Hilgenberg said of Omiyale. "With his flexibility, he has the potential fundamentally to be a really superior player. I just hope he takes the opportunity here and runs with it. He can have a career for himself if he plays fundamentally sound."

Now that offensive coordinator Mike Martz has had a year to implement his system, it appears he will have to scale back again, and his pass-to-run ratio is rightfully again in question with a ridiculously low 11 running plays called to 52 passes Sunday.

"You just hate to make it so vanilla that you can't do much," Hilgenberg said. "You've got to score points. But if you're having mental errors. Yeah, you've got to look at [simplifying] because mental errors will get people hurt and end the season faster than anything."

The Bears went into Sunday's game with Louis, Chris Harris, Roy Williams and Marion Barber sidelined by injuries and added Earl Bennett, Gabe Carimi and Major Wright to that list Sunday. It sure doesn't feel like good timing with the Packers coming to town.

But considering the way Atlanta was humiliated by the Bears in Week 1 of the season and came back strong to beat Philadelphia, and the fact that Pittsburgh was pounded by the Ravens in the first game and shut out Seattle in Week 2, a Bears' rebound is certainly not out of the question.

"Absolutely," Hilgenberg said. "It's so early in the year, this is going to be a good teaching tool to get better and get prepared this week. These guys will get over this game. It doesn't matter if you lose by one or 50. I think these guys have to be so excited to have the opportunity to play Green Bay after last season. And the Bears' defense has done a nice job against the Packers. They've slowed them down as much as anyone in the NFL has.


"I believe in this Bears' offensive line, that they can provide enough protection for Cutler to make enough plays to score. And they can win games with their defense."

More embarrassing than demoralizing is how Hilgenberg termed Sunday.

"We, as fans, probably got too hyped up after the Atlanta win and probably too down after this loss," he said. "But then, that's what makes it fun."

Bears fans might choose a different word today. But as Hilgenberg put it, "It's never as bad as it looks, and it's never as good as you hoped."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.