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Jay Cutler's absence shows Bears' problem is offensive line

I have always loved Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. I'm a huge fan, regardless of what happens during the game, the facial expressions he makes, how he handles his teammates, or -- most of all -- how others interpret his body language. And given the way Chicago's offense performed without him against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday, Bears faithful should follow my lead -- because without Cutler, the Bears are not a playoff team.

For the second year in a row, an injury to Cutler has sparked a Bears losing streak. Last season, many felt the Bears went into a tailspin sans Cutler because of inexperience at the backup quarterback position (Caleb Hanie struggled in Cutler's place) and because of former offensive coordinator Mike Martz's philosophy. In the offseason, the Bears set out to fix both issues, promoting offensive line coach Mike Tice to replace the departed Martz and signing veteran backup Jason Campbell.

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Chicago Bears vs. San Francisco 49ers

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However, Monday's game showed that neither the backup nor the coordinator were the Bears' real problem. Their real problem was -- and continues to be -- the offensive line, regardless of who's calling plays or who's under center (unless, of course, his name is Jay Cutler). Face it, Bears fans; your offensive line stinks.

The Bears' line was bad last season. The team didn't make any significant personnel changes up front, so it's bad once again this year. Bears coaches can try to switch the play calls and hide the problem, but schemes will not save them against good opponents.

On Monday night, against the 49ers' dominating defensive front, the Bears were exposed. J'Marcus Webb is not a real left tackle; he always needs help in pass protection. Former first-round pick Gabe Carimi has not been impressive at right tackle. Inside at guard, the Bears are relying on Chilo Rachal -- who couldn't handle the starting job for the 49ers last season. The Bears are not solid at a single position on the line. Each week, their coaches have to scheme around the lack of talent in an attempt to protect the passer -- which is hard to do, depending on the matchups.

If the Bears hadn't fallen behind early on Monday, Campbell might have had a chance. But with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick doing his best Joe Montana impression, Campbell had no shot. The 49ers were so dominant, it occurred to me that even if San Francisco decided to play defense with just 10 men, the Bears still would have struggled to score more than 10 points.

The Bears' line will still be bad when Cutler returns. The uniquely tough and talented Cutler seems to be the only quarterback who can work around that line and still make plays. But imagine how good he would be if Chicago's offensive line was more like San Francisco's, if he had the kind of protection that allowed him to scan the field and make throws. Yes, Cutler would still take chances with the ball, but he'd also make plays and turn the Bears' offense into a feared unit.

(By the way, all quarterbacks have to take some chances. Interceptions are a part of the game, and signal-callers who want to win a Super Bowl have to be willing to go for tight throws. No one in the NFL right now takes more chances than Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck, who is not shy about throwing into a crowd and letting his receivers make plays. But while Luck is applauded for his aggressiveness, if Cutler attempted some of those same throws, he'd be ripped for his supposed carelessness. There is a fine line between taking chances and being careless; most blue-chip quarterbacks understand this delicate balance.)

Monday night's game should have hammered home the lesson that the Bears' core issue is their offensive line, and until they fix it, they'll never be able to beat the better teams in the NFC, like the 49ers, New York Giants or Green Bay Packers. The Bears also should have learned that regardless of how well their defense plays, there always will be teams with the firepower to attack their scheme and out-score their offense.

Chicago must fix this problem quickly. The Bears cannot wait another offseason to find five linemen who can win in the playoffs. Because of the age of their defense, the Bears' window is closing. It might shut completely if they can't improve their line.

They often say that in love, absence makes the heart grow fonder. The same might be said of Cutler and Bears fans, who must love him even more after Monday night.

THINGS I LOVED

I loved how it was apparent that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have adopted the toughness of Greg Schiano. The Bucs keep fighting and never give up. Down eight points with no timeouts against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, quarterback Josh Freeman took Tampa Bay 80 yards on seven plays, then connected on a two-point conversion to send the game into overtime. The Bucs believe they can win, which is half the battle in the NFL.

I loved that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens demonstrated what "being physical" really means. Both teams took their games to another level, playing hard, playing intensely on every possession, knowing it might determine the outcome of their showdown last Sunday. I'm not sure either team will have anything left this week (the Steelers have to face the Cleveland Browns while the Ravens travel west to play the San Diego Chargers). But I loved watching this kind of game.

I loved that Justin Blackmon finally showed the skills that made him the fifth overall draft pick in April. The Jacksonville Jaguars rookie had a career day in a losing effort against the Houston Texans, snagging seven passes for 236 yards and a touchdown. With Chad Henne taking over for injured starter Blaine Gabbert, the Jaguars finally had a quarterback who was willing to make throws up the field. It was amazing how much that benefitted the Jags' offense -- and Blackmon.

THINGS I HATED

I hated how the Oakland Raiders played defense over the past month. On Sunday, the Raiders held the New Orleans Saints to "just" 38 points. It was an accomplishment that they held them to less than 40, considering that Oakland gave up 55 to the Ravens and 42 to the Bucs in previous weeks. The Raiders' past three opponents have scored a total of 135 points. Oakland is not improving this year; the team is getting worse with each game.

I hated being disappointed by the Philadelphia Eagles -- yet again. Each week, I think the Eagles might turn things around, but it's clear that there is no salvaging their season. They are awful, and they will be awful for the next six weeks. Firing coach Andy Reid would not solve the problem, which will require a full offseason to assess and address. Besides finding a new coach, the most difficult task for the Eagles will be accurately evaluating their talent level. Despite what Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie says, the Eagles are not talented.

I hated hearing people suggest that New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski should not have been on the field when he was injured Sunday. Of course, I also hate that he'll be out four to six weeks with a broken forearm, but really? The NFL is not high school or college. There are limits as to the number of players who can dress. Teams have just 46 players to choose from; every team needs players to handle roles in the kicking game, and they rarely substitute players off the field-goal squad. Injuries are a part of the game. Some happen with little or no contact, and some happen to players who are directly in the line of fire. But they are hard to predict or control. It is really ridiculous to even argue this point.

THINGS ON MY MIND

» I love Byron Leftwich's personality and leadership skills, but why did the Steelers think he could handle the backup quarterback role? I question their decision not because of his ability, but rather because of his lack of durability. Leftwich, it seems, can never stay healthy. If Ben Roethlisberger doesn't come back soon, the Steelers might not make the playoffs.

» The New York Jets had a horrible week, given all the chatter about Tim Tebow, but they played what might have been their best game of the year against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. The Jets fought through the adversity and got a huge win, which was impressive in light of all that was happening around them.

» The Arizona Cardinals have lost six in a row after winning their first four. Until they fix their quarterback issues, they will not win, regardless of how good they are on defense.

» Losing receiver Nate Burleson to injury has really hurt the Detroit Lions. Titus Young has not proven he can handle the starting receiver role, talent-wise or on an emotional level. The Lions did the right thing by sending him home this week and deactivating him ahead of the upcoming matchup with the Houston Texans.

» The New England Patriots' defense did a nice job of keeping quarterback Andrew Luck in the pocket in their win over the Indianapolis Colts, making Luck feel the rush around him while he tried to make throws. Luck is not as obviously mobile as Washington Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III, but he is equally effective; teams must force Luck to stand in the pocket if they want to beat him.

» Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur made a huge mistake in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday when he ran a play with 2:05 left rather than letting the clock run down to the two-minute warning. The Cowboys thus had one timeout remaining when they got the ball back at the 1:07 mark. Can you imagine the Cowboys on a two-minute drive without any timeouts? Why did the Browns need to run that play? They had the ball on the Dallas 6-yard line with four downs at their disposal. There was plenty of time to run the ball; why hurry?

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.

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