CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears’ issues on the offensive line are far more complicated than they have been all season — and that’s saying something.
The team is hopeful center Cody Whitehair will return from a calf injury soon, but now the Bears are bracing to be without right tackle Bobby Massie for a significant period, and his replacement, Jason Spriggs, has tested positive for COVID-19, according to two league sources.
The Bears placed Spriggs and right guard Germain Ifedi on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday afternoon. NFL Media reported that Ifedi would go on the list because of close contact with Spriggs. That doesn’t necessarily rule Ifedi out for Sunday’s road game against the Tennessee Titans, but it puts the Bears in a bind as they begin preparations.
That means, at minimum, the Bears are down to their third option at right tackle and could be without four starters on the offensive line against the Titans. It’s musical chairs up front for coach Matt Nagy and offensive line coach Juan Castillo as they face the challenges of playing football during the pandemic.
The Bears also could be on their third center if Whitehair cannot return this week because Sam Mustipher was injured in Sunday’s overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints. Even though he finished the game, it’s believed Mustipher will miss time.
So if Ifedi is not cleared before Sunday and Whitehair can’t go, left tackle Charles Leno would be the only starting lineman available.
Whitehair missed a game for the first time in his career Sunday, ending a streak of 71 consecutive starts and forcing another change along an offensive line that previously lost left guard James Daniels for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. The good news is the Bears were optimistic last week that Whitehair won’t be out for long.
But if Whitehair doesn’t return to face the Titans, Alex Bars might be the starting center.
Massie’s left knee buckled on the fourth offensive play Sunday when Ifedi and a pile of players fell on the back of his left leg at the end of a short run by David Montgomery. Massie could be sidelined more than a month, according to league sources, and the Bears placed him on injured reserve Tuesday afternoon.
The Bears also promoted rookie Lachavious Simmons, a seventh-round draft pick, from the practice squad to the 53-man roster and signed veteran lineman Aaron Neary to the practice squad.
How the team adjusts will be interesting. Spriggs was plugged in to replace Massie against the Saints and wound up coming out of the game for one snap. During the preseason, Spriggs missed a little more than two weeks with a right knee injury, and now he’s out indefinitely after the positive coronavirus test.
Massie missed one game last season with a minor case of vertigo before a high ankle sprain put him on the shelf for the final five weeks. The Bears signed Massie to a four-year, $32 million extension in January 2019 that included $15.8 million guaranteed.
Rashaad Coward, who has played left guard in the absence of Daniels, spent some time at right tackle during training camp and shifted there for the one play Spriggs missed against the Saints. He’s the likely choice to play right tackle this week.
Moving Coward to right tackle creates a hole at left guard, and the logical replacement there is rookie Arlington Hambright, a seventh-round pick from Colorado who was active for the first time this season against the Saints. Simmons has been groomed as a tackle, and he could become the swing tackle for this game.
Neary is considered an interior offensive lineman. He has spent time with the Broncos, Eagles and Rams and played in one game for the Rams in 2017.
It’s a less-than-ideal situation for the Bears. Spriggs was the obvious candidate to replace Massie, and he could return to fill the spot as there is a chance Massie won’t return this season. A former second-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, Spriggs started nine games for them from 2016 to 2018 before spending all of last season on injured reserve.
Mustipher, an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame in 2019, started at center in place of Whitehair against the Saints, and Nagy and quarterback Nick Foles have praised him for his intelligence and communication skills.
It’s worth wondering if the Bears eventually will place Mustipher at center and slide Whitehair to left guard, but that’s not a decision they can make until both are healthy, and the Bears have more pressing issues to sort through right now. The offense has struggled to run the ball since the first two games, and Foles has been sacked nine times in the last two games.
“When you have a lack of consistency — and I’m talking more health-wise; you’ve got different guys up there on that front line — it can become more difficult,” Nagy said. “There’s some guys in there that don’t have a whole lot of experience. Now there’s others that do. And trying to find out how do we play well together and how do we protect and scat protection when there’s only five of us and are we making the right calls.
“(Sunday) you had Sam in there playing center, and I thought he did a really good job, for the most part, of making calls, of being a leader in that huddle. But that’s his first game he’s ever started. You’ve got a left guard in Rashaad Coward that was a defensive tackle three years ago. So they’re learning here. We know that. But at the same time, we hold them accountable, we hold our coaches accountable, that it does start there. Whether it’s in the run game or in pass (protection), if it gets leaky at all, meaning that guys are coming through and the timing’s not right, it can be hard.
“But I will say this: I thought there was an improvement with the run game in particular, with being able to get some more runs that were 5 and 6 (yards). As much as it stinks to lose the game, I do feel like that part was a little bit better. It’s not where we want it to be, but it was better.”
The good news is the Titans have struggled on defense, especially lately, and they rank 25th in total defense, 22nd versus the run, 27th versus the pass and 18th in scoring defense. The Bengals were missing four offensive linemen Sunday when they defeated the Titans 31-20, rolling up 367 total yards and converting 10 of 15 third downs.
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