Af­ter poor 2019 sea­son, left tackle must bounce back

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - MARK POTASH mpotash@suntimes.com | @MarkPo­tash

When Bears left tackle Charles Leno made the Pro Bowl af­ter the 2018 sea­son, it was a par­tic­u­larly grat­i­fy­ing ac­com­plish­ment for a player who came into the league as a sev­en­thround selec­tion in 2014.

Not only was he a late-round pick, but the 6-3, 307-pound Boise State prod­uct had lit­tle con­ti­nu­ity at one of foot­ball’s most de­mand­ing po­si­tions. Leno was play­ing for his fourth of­fen­sive line coach in six sea­sons in Harry Hi­e­s­tand and with his fourth left guard in six sea­sons in rookie James Daniels.

But stay­ing at that level proved dif­fi­cult. Whether it was hu­man na­ture or just the dif­fi­culty in main­tain­ing a high stan­dard, Leno lost a lit­tle bit of his fo­cus last sea­son. One glar­ing ex­am­ple: Leno was pe­nal­ized 13 times, nearly dou­ble his 2018 to­tal of seven. His Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus rat­ing plum­meted from 78.7 to 58.6.

“I just got to raise the level of my play, fo­cus more on do­ing my job bet­ter,” Leno said. “One thing I looked at when I was re­view­ing my film was the de­tail and lack­ing fun­da­men­tals. I’m gonna do a tre­men­dously bet­ter job at this. I al­ready know it. I feel it in the way I’m prac­tic­ing right now. And I felt it in the way I’ve been train­ing this off­sea­son.”

Leno was part of an of­fen­sive line that ranked 26th over­all by Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus and 29th in run-block­ing by Foot­ball Outsiders. It’s a big rea­son why coach Matt Nagy re­placed Hi­e­s­tand with Juan Castillo — giv­ing Leno his fifth of­fen­sive line coach in seven NFL sea­sons, fol­low­ing Pat Meyer (2014), Dave Magazu (2015-16), Jeremiah Wash­burn (2017) and Hi­e­s­tand (2018-19).

So by now, Leno is used to learn­ing new ap­proaches and seems to be mak­ing a com­fort­able tran­si­tion un­der Castillo, even though the in­tro­duc­tion was dif­fi­cult via Zoom meet­ings be­cause of lim­i­ta­tions caused by COVID-19.

“First im­pres­sion of Juan? He likes Corona [beer]; that’s the big­gest first im­pres­sion,” Leno said. “But on Zoom, it is what it is. Ev­ery­body had to ad­just to it. There were some things we had to work through, like just un­der­stand­ing, be­cause when you’re not there, it’s hard to point out, ‘Hey, Coach, what’s this look or that look?’ Or just the feel of be­ing around each other. Other than that, it’s been all good. So far, so good.”

Leno has been ex­tremely de­pend­able since re­plac­ing Jer­mon Bushrod as the start­ing left tackle in 2015. He has started 78 con­sec­u­tive games, in­clud­ing the play­offs — play­ing 99.8% (5,086 of 5,094) of the Bears’ of­fen­sive snaps.

But as much as that is val­ued in the NFL, Castillo’s job is to get Leno’s per­for­mance at a sim­i­larly con­sis­tent level.

“I think he’s re­ally bought into [the idea that], ‘Hey, this is re­ally what is go­ing to make you more con­sis­tent, Charles,’ ’’ Castillo said. ‘‘And if you’re more con­sis­tent, then you are go­ing to be a bet­ter player.”

This is a key year for Nagy’s of­fense and also for Leno. It could turn out that the Bears need a first-round-cal­iber of­fen­sive tackle — if not two — to ig­nite this of­fense. But if other pieces fall into place, Leno and right tackle Bobby Massie can get the job done on a play­off team.

Af­ter five sea­sons as a starter, Leno, who will turn 29 on Oct. 9, has to con­vince the Bears that they don’t need to re­build at that key of­fen­sive line spot.

“Know­ing this is the NFL, this is a hy­per­com­pet­i­tive sport, you’ve got to make sure what­ever you did last year, you’ve got to do bet­ter,” Leno said. “For my­self in­cluded, I’m just think­ing about how I can im­prove to help my team.’’


Last sea­son, Charles Leno was pe­nal­ized 13 times, nearly dou­ble his 2018 to­tal of seven.

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