LAKE FOREST — As the highest profile acquisition last offseason on an offensive line that featured four new starters and allowed the fewest sacks by a Bears team since 2008, Jermon Bushrod knows the potential impact of making wholesale changes on a unit badly in need of repair.
Thus, the two-time Pro Bowler, who received over $18 million guaranteed to stabilize Jay Cutler’s blind side, was understandably excited when asked on Thursday, after the Bears wrapped up their three-day minicamp, about where the team is at following general manager Phil Emery’s thorough defensive revamping this offseason. The NFL’s 30th-ranked unit a season ago could have as many as seven new starters, including a pair of new defensive ends, Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen.
“We lost Julius (Peppers) but we brought in Jared Allen, got Lamarr (Houston) in, Willie Young, a couple of other guys, on the defensive line,” said Bushrod. “I think some of the guys that we’ve brought in, veteran-wise, and some of the guys that we were able to sign back, are going to do nothing but help us in the long run.”
It stands to reason that Allen, second among active NFL players in sacks with 128½, in particular could help not only a Bears defense that ranked dead-last in that department, but also Bushrod. After doing battle with Allen over the past six seasons, Bushrod can now exchange trade tips with his new teammate and future Hall of Famer.
“Instead of me game-planning him, we can help each other and figure out ways we can get better… He’s helped me out some – we’ve had conversations about the ins and outs of what a defensive lineman is thinking. So I have another good veteran that, I can pick his brain, we can talk things out, and I’m hoping and praying that it makes us better – makes me better individually and makes us better as a team.”
At his introductory press conference last month, Allen had similar thoughts on competing against Bushrod, who he notched a pair of sacks against in their two meetings a year ago. “I respect the way he works,” Allen said. “… I feel like I’ve already got good practice habits with him.”
The weight room, Bushrod said, is the place where he and Allen have “sparked conversations about techniques,” but he wasn’t about to share the particulars with the media.
Although most of the conversation this offseason regarding Chicago’s ascending offensive line has focused on continuity – the Bears were one of three lines in football to have the same starting combination for all 16 games, and all five linemen return – Bushrod and center Roberto Garza have been the two constants in the offseason program. Left guard Matt Slauson has been sidelined since last season as he recovers from shoulder surgery, and the right side, guard Kyle Long and tackle Jordan Mills, were held out for part of the mandatory minicamp due to precautionary reasons.
“That’s just the name of the game," said Bushrod, who has made every start since Week 11 of the 2009 season. “This is a brutal sport that we play. You might have all five guys one day, and then the next day someone goes down – like I did last year with a strained calf – and somebody else has to jump in and fulfill that job.”
Bushrod said, “if we can get lucky enough” to keep all five guys healthy for a second consecutive season, “that would be awesome.” He played on some talented and durable units under offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer in New Orleans, noting the value of gaining that familiarity with teammates in practice every day.
With the cohesion along the offensive line and added competition on the defensive side of the ball, Bushrod believes the sky is the limit for an offense that continues to grow and gain recognition around the league. More importantly, the unit has gained the trust of quarterback Cutler, a confidence and comfort level that Cutler lacked before Bushrod’s arrival last offseason.