Grading offensive line play is the most difficult thing any analyst, insider, or fan can do. Which is why I’m thankful for the folks at Pro Football Focus and ESPN, who do well and while while providing depth and context to their grades. Do we always come to the same conclusions? Hardly. But it’s good to have points of reference when discussing line play. And when it comes to the first two games of the season, the early returns are better than what Bears fans might’ve otherwise been expecting.
Heck, I’d step out on a ledge and suggest the early returns are actually GOOD.
PFF: Jason Peters and Germain Ifedi are Top-11 Pass-Blockers
Through two weeks, Jason Peters and Germain Ifedi are two of the NFL’s best pass-blockers. And that’s just swell to see. Because who doesn’t love pleasant surprises?
Well, other than this unsuspecting Bengals running back:
Second game after being signed a few weeks before the season + 39-years old..Jason Peters pic.twitter.com/Ypvs7sWQhL
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) September 22, 2021
Peters is PFF’s No. 9 offensive tackle after two games, with his pass-blocking excellence carrying a bulk of the weight. The 39-year-old is PFF’s sixth-highest-graded pass-blocking tackle. Peters’ 82.3 grade comes on just 55 pass-blocking snaps, which is the fewest among the eight highest-graded tackles. I’d feel better about this grade had it come in more reps, but excellence in a small sample shouldn’t be ignored when it comes with Peters’ résumé.
Ifedi checks in as the 11th-highest-graded tackle on PFF’s scale. This leaves the Bears as the only team with both of its starting tackles hanging among the 12 highest-graded players at their respective positions. That’s pretty neat. No matter if you’re Andy Dalton or Justin Fields, you’ll see these grades and they’ll put a smile on your face. This is far better than what anyone would’ve expected before the season kicked off on Sept. 12 against the Rams. And while I doubt these metrics are predictive, that the performance grades out this well this early is nevertheless a sight for sore eyes.
ESPN: The Bears are a Top-10 Run-Blocking Team
Even though football is leaning hard toward pass protection, the best teams always run the ball well. Sure, there are some backs who can thrive without stellar line play. But it is always better to have the big guys up front moving piles of other large humans than it is to not have them in tow. With that being said, the Bears look to be in good shape here.
ESPN uses “Team Run/Paass Block Win Rate” to grade line play. In brief, Run/Pass Block Win Rate (RBWR/PBWR) tracks the percentage of plays in which the line held its blocks enough to collectively win on blocking reps. And to this point, Chicago’s 73 percent RBWR is the ninth best in football. Only Washington, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, L.A. (Rams), Dallas, Miami, Minnesota, and Cleveland rank ahead of Chicago’s football team. That’s pretty good company all around, even if I notice how two previous Bears opponents (Rams, Bengals) and seven future opponents (Vikings, Browns, Cardinals, Packers, Ravens, Lions, Giants) all rank in the top-half of the league in this category. All things considered, I’ll never not be accepting of a top-10 rating in an advanced metric that grades line play.
Moreover, it is encouraging to see James Daniels come in with ESPN’s third-highest RBWR as a guard. Daniels’ 81 percent win rate on run-blocking plays puts him in good company. Same can be said about Jason Peters, whose 87 percent RBWR is the sixth best among tackles.
ESPN 2: And the Pass Protection Isn’t Awful!
Hey, now! The pass-blocking isn’t shabby by ESPN’s grading (once you get to that part). No, ESPN doesn’t list any Bears in their top-10 pass-blocking tackles, guards, or center. But overall, the 57 percent pass-block win rate (PBWR) is 14th in the NFL. That number puts Chicago’s football team slightly above average and firmly among the middle-of-the-pack. If you could see my face right now, it would look like that Larry David .gif that is the perfect depiction of “ehhhhhh.”
If Bears pass-rushers want to start licking their chops, the Seahawks, Lions, Bucs, Raiders, Vikings, and Steelers all come in among the bottom half of this list. That’s six Bears opponents they’ll play eight games against this season. Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn better make the most of their opportunities when they come.
Many of the biggest concerns surrounding the line had to do with the tackles. Not only were the Bears entering the 2021 season with two new bookends on the line, they were doing so in the most risky fashion possible.
Ifedi, who re-signed on a one-year deal in the offseason, performed better at right guard than he did at tackle. And while it was an admirable performance at the end of last season, it felt like it could’ve been better. On the other end of the formation, the Bears brought in Peters after Teven Jenkins’ back injury was serious enough to require surgery and knock him out for the foreseeable future. That these respective rolls of the dice are yielding positive returns to this point is a welcome sight.
The expectation throughout training camp and the preseason was that interior line play would carry this group. Cody Whitehair has been fine at guard and center, while Daniels was putting out good stuff when healthy last year. That group probably has room to grow, especially with Sam Mustipher as the man-in-the-middle for his first full NFL season. But we’ll continue to monitor this as the season rolls on.
Ultimately, the big takeaway here should be the good vibes that come with the Bears not being among the dredges when it comes to blocking. Again, it’s a small sample. And things figure to change between now and when the year ends. However, it is impossible to ignore good grades at the outset. Now, keep it going!