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Bears slowly bring along C Grasu

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – On draft day the Chicago Bears touted Hroniss Grasu as their center of the future after selecting him in the third round.

As they began looking at this week’s matchup in Kansas City against the Chiefs, they were apparently not yet ready to say the future is here because coach John Fox avoided committing to the rookie in the starting lineup Monday following a potential season-ending injury to center Will Montgomery.

Montgomery suffered the injury early during their 22-20 victory over Oakland.

“I think he’s a very talented player,” Fox said about Grasu, a former Oregon center. “He’s a guy that’s familiar with our offense. I think everybody in our locker room, or in our football building, has confidence in him.

“At some point, we will get to find out.”

The point may not be now, however.

Fox liked the way Matt Slauson stepped in and effectively communicated line calls and blocked at center when he swung over from left guard in win over Oakland. Like most teams, the Bears enter games with only seven offensive linemen active, so Grasu hasn’t been in an NFL game yet.

Even without their starting center, the Bears operated efficiently enough on the line to convert 59 percent of their third downs into first downs (10-for-17). They enjoyed a 291-144 yardage advantage starting the third quarter and wound up with 371 yards.

Most importantly quarterback Jay Cutler got sacked three times for just eight yards in losses in a game when his mobility was obviously curtailed due to a pulled hamstring.

“It wasn’t all hunky-dory,” Fox said about the line. “But I thought they didn’t panic and just kept swinging the sword and did pretty good.”

They achieved this at home. Going to Kansas City might make it much more difficult for Slauson or Grasu or whoever the Bears put at center.

Slauson’s plan is to be prepared to play both left guard and center after he got through the pressure cooker of making line calls and snapping the ball after he had only six practice snaps this year.

“It was tough,” he said. “I spent my time with my family, had a couple beers, and then a couple more. But it was good. It definitely took me a long time to come down, though. I was spinning for a while.

“But I think when I had to make that move, what helped me was, I didn’t think about it. I was just locked in. I couldn’t over-stress, because I would just fall apart. I just tried to lock myself in the zone and not think about anything else.”

What made matters all the more difficult for Slauson was Oakland’s defensive scheme. He had a nose tackle directly over him without a lot of shading to one side.

“That was something new for me as far as technique-wise,” he said.

At guard, Slauson said he rarely has a player directly over him, either, so he was doing something entirely new.

“I just tried to take whatever guard techniques I could and roll them over,” he said.

If they turn to Grasu, it’s likely to give the offense a more mobile center. However, his weight at close to 300 pounds is small for an NFL center. This can change the style of plays the Bears run, or at least the blocking scheme.

“The thing about him is, he can be small and play in that role,” Slauson said. “Casey Wiegmann did it forever. (Kevin) Mawae. There’s definitely a place for the smaller centers.

“The only problem is, I can’t help him, technique-wise, because I don’t play like that. Everything I try to tell him is just embrace your size and your gifts, because he’s able to do a lot of things that I can’t speed- and athleticism-wise. And as far as bracing against a really big guy, I think he’d be fine with that. You just have to learn how to use your leverage and your hands, but then all the rest is a lot of trick-type stuff – jumping around guys and using their momentum against them.”

Having Grasu at center would let Slauson return to a position he’s comfortable at, and would move Patrick Omameh out of the lineup.

Acquired only three weeks earlier on waivers, Omameh wasn’t much more familiar with his task Sunday than Slauson was at center.

The line had the added burden of Charles Leno Jr. starting at left tackle since regular left tackle Jermon Bushrod suffered a concussion and shoulder injury the previous week.

“A lot of moving parts out there,” Cutler said. “Those guys held their own and fought all day.”

The question going forward is who will do the fighting and at what position against Kansas City.

REPORT CARD VS. RAIDERS

–PASSING OFFENSE: B. Jay Cutler made the big mistake, but then also atoned by directing the game-winning drive. Cutler successfully found tight end Martellus Bennett 11 times, a key in the game since the Raiders had allowed tight ends 21 catches for 305 yards and five TDs in the first three games. Without injured Alshon Jeffery, the Bears passing game had been struggling getting the ball to wide receivers. However, Marquess Wilson stepped up for the first time and made six catches for 80 yards and was key in the game-winning drive. Pass blocking was marginal, but the loss of both tackle Jermon Bushrod and center Will Montgomery made blocking any type of play a chore. Tackle Charles Leno Jr. managed to hold his own on the left side

–RUSHING OFFENSE: B. Matt Forte ran hard, even on plays when it appeared he had no running room. He had a few plays in mid-game when he danced too much before hititng a hole, but quickly lost this habit and consistently gained yardage to complement Cutler’s passing.

–PASS DEFENSE: B. Considering the injury to Antrel Rolle and use of two rookie safeties, the secondary managed a fair job of averting big plays against a team with enough speed to produce some. The entire secondary did a solid job of attacking receivers who did make a catch in order to avert big gainers. Oakland had no pass plays longer than 26 yards.

–RUSHING DEFENSE: A-minus. Allowed only 3.2 yards per carry, and 70 yards total thanks largely to another strong game from end Jarvis Jenkins and the inside linebackers. Eddie Goldman got his first career start at nose tackle and showed drastic improvement as a two-gap plug over the appearances he had made in previous games.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus. A few penalties on returns and a blocked extra point early left the Bears looking at yet another special teams debacle. However, kicker Robbie Gould delivered in the clutch with a game-winning 49-yarder and also connected from 54 yards, and fill-in punter Spencer Lanning, who replaced injured Pat O’Donnell, managed to avoid a big disaster while also providing a solid job as a holder in the kicking game. Coverage units, so poor the previous three weeks, benefited greatly from Gould moving his kicks around to limit returns.

–COACHING: B-plus. Again the game plan outperformed the execution, but not to the same degree as in the three losses. Failing to use timeouts properly toward the end of the first half might have cost them a chance at another field goal. And Marc Trestman could have told them all about the need to get Gould a little closer for his game-winning field goal try – in 2013 it cost the Bears a playoff berth. Fox admitted he probably could have used time more wisely then to get them closer. Defensively, the biggest coaching contribution might have simply been communicating properly as the two rookie safeties had very little difficulty with blown assignments at crucial points in the game. And putting Tracy Porter on Amari Cooper all over the field proved a stroke of genius by coordinator Vic Fangio. Offensively, the injuries on the line required the game plan to be altered a bit, but they continued to mix the pass and run and adequately moved Cutler’s launch points around to keep the pass rush off balance. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase may have been a bit greedy on the third-and-short pass Cutler threw for an interception while in field goal range. Protecting the chance to go ahead for more than a field goal at that point in the game took priority over risking a turnover for a try at a touchdown.


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