LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Defenses were whizzing by the Chicago Bears' line like cars on an expressway, and with no one stopping them, quarterback Jay Cutler was getting flattened.
The season appeared to be speeding away, too.
The Bears are alone on top of the NFC North at 8-3 with four straight wins heading into Detroit this week and are pushing to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the team's 2006 Super Bowl run.
One reason for the turnaround: an improved offensive line.
The Bears seem to have found the right mix after repeatedly juggling the rotation because of injuries and poor play. Although that unit isn't exactly dominating, it's performing well enough.
"It's a new group," Cutler said. "We've just had some time, get some experience under their belt of those guys playing together. Those guys understand the scheme as well as the skill-position guys. It goes back to everybody. This is the kind of scheme where if you've got one guy out of 11 that's out of place, not doing his job, then the whole thing is going to fall apart."
The Bears seemed to be in pieces heading into their bye.
They dropped three of four after winning the first three games, and Cutler was taking a brutal beating. The low point was a loss to the New York Giants in which he got sacked nine times in the first half alone and wound up with a concussion that sidelined him for a week.
Now look at the Bears.
They're coming off a 31-26 win over Philadelphia, a high point in a wild season. How'd they get here? Well, continuity helps.
They've gone with the same starters on the line in the four games since the break, after going with four lineups in the first seven games.
"We're fortunate to have all five guys playing for the last four weeks, and hopefully we can stay like that," guard Roberto Garza said.
They took a small step forward against Buffalo coming out of the bye when Cutler was sacked just once after going down 19 times over his previous three games and have continued to make progress.
Garza settled in at right guard against the Bills after missing back-to-back home losses to Seattle and Washington with a knee injury. Before that, he started the first five games at left guard.
That spot is now occupied by Chris Williams, the former first-round draft pick who was viewed as the left tackle of the future. The left tackle at the moment is Frank Omiyale, who got moved from the right side early on after Williams injured his hamstring.
At right tackle, rookie J'Marcus Webb continues to settle in. The only one who hasn't moved is Olin Kreutz, the six-time Pro Bowl center and heart of the offense along with Cutler.
"People don't realize offensive line is something (where) you need to know what the guy next to you is doing," tight end Greg Olsen said. "That familiarity, just the comfort level with those guys is huge."
The Bears' line still ranks last in the league. No unit has given up as many sacks (41) and only three have allowed more quarterback hits (69), but it gets some credit for the recent turnaround.
Cutler is still walking, something that looked like a 50-50 shot earlier this season, in part because of better blocking.
More balanced play-calling is helping, too.
The Bears have cut down on the seven-step drops and pass-happy ways since the bye. They're moving the pocket more, letting Cutler create with his feet, and they're not treating the handoff as a foreign concept.
In the four games since the bye, they've run the ball 137 times while attempting 111 passes in the past four games. Whether it was coach Lovie Smith or someone above clamping down on offensive coordinator Mike Martz or the staff reaching a consensus, it's a startling contrast from the first seven games, when they ran it 156 times while attempting 215 passes.
"It's definitely a better scheme, what they've come up to," Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "They've allowed themselves to create a good running game, which obviously helps them out in the pass."
It helps that the line is performing better — not perfect, but better.
Cutler still got sacked four times against the Eagles, but there was also a rare sight during that game. It happened in the third quarter, when the Bears orchestrated a 17-play drive that ate up more than 10 minutes and ended with a field goal by Robbie Gould.
It gave the defense a big rest against Michael Vick, and it wouldn't have happened if the blockers weren't doing their job.
"Each week, we've made progress," Martz said. "We started out the first three games of the season making progress. We had some personnel issues that kind of set us back a little bit."
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