It took 17 starts and two Bears regimes, but Justin Fields now looks like he might avoid becoming the latest example of a young quarterback failed by a bad environment.
While there are plenty of passers whose mistakes fall squarely on them, it’s the team’s job to make sure that’s not the reason a highly drafted quarterback flops, and the Bears are finally doing that by giving Fields an offense that plays to his strengths.
Through the first six games of the season, Bears manager Ryan Poles’ decision to tear down the roster before rebuilding it — the right move for the franchise long term — looked like it could traumatize Chicago’s young quarterback thanks to a poor offensive line and lack of talent at receiver. Fields has taken a league-leading 31 sacks, some of which are on him, but the pressure came so quickly on other plays that he didn’t have a chance. Fields needs to speed up the process of going through his progressions, but it’s hard to learn how to do it right and get beneficial reps when you’re constantly under attack.
A good environment can mitigate some of a young quarterback’s typical growing pains with good protection, weapons and a scheme that makes life easier for him. Until a couple of weeks ago, Fields had none of those things, and the most extreme part of it all was that the Bears didn’t take advantage of one of Fields’ biggest assets: his legs.
Aside from Lamar Jackson, Fields might be the best pure runner in the game. At 6-2, 227 pounds, Fields has 4.4 40 speed. He can make defenders miss in tight spots and pull away from them downfield. One of the reasons athleticism is sought after at the quarterback position more than it has been in the past is that it gives quarterbacks a floor. Running the option in the NFL gives young quarterbacks something to do successfully, and it buys them time to develop as downfield passers.
Under former head coach Matt Nagy last season, Fields had just 18 designed rushes, tying him with Mac Jones (designed rushes also account for QB sneaks). And before Week 7 of this season, under current offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, Fields had just 12 rushing attempts that weren’t scrambles — two of which were broken plays, and one of which was a quarterback sneak.
You could argue that the Bears didn’t want to risk an injury to Fields — see what happened with Trey Lance — but there have been plenty of examples of teams using the opportunity to buy time for their quarterbacks to develop, such as Ravens with Jackson, Eagles with Jalen Hurts and Bills with Josh Allen. Also, there have been many quarterbacks who have had their seasons end from brutal hits in the pocket when they had no chance to protect themselves.
For the Bears, a team with an offensive line that is much better at run blocking than pass blocking and two legitimately good running backs in Khalil Herbert and David Montgomery, running a high-volume alternative offense made too much sense. In Week 7, after 11 days of rest during the mini-bye week, the Bears finally committed and reportedly stole plays from the Baltimore Ravens.
The Bears were apparently watching closely for the Lamar Jackson offense. When Justin Fields was asked about all the designed runs:
“It just brings a whole new element to our offense, stealing some plays from the (Baltimore) Ravens.
Stealing any plays from the Ravens?
— Mark Grote (@markgrotesports) 25 October 2022
In the Bears’ last two games, according to TruMedia, Fields has completed 15 designed runs for 78 yards, seven first downs and two touchdowns. Prior to this, Nagy and Getsy had both called some zone reads that didn’t count because Fields gave the ball away, but overall they both used it sparingly and never committed to running the option. When an offense commits, it changes the way defenses play. Defenses have to have more answers on how to handle it because they are faced with a math problem: How do they get an extra defender in the box to cover the quarterback?
Week 8, 14:44 remaining in the fourth quarter, third and 8
You won’t see too many run calls on third and long, but for the Bears, who were greatly outmatched by the Cowboys’ pass rush, it was acceptable. Part of the thinking was probably that the Cowboys wouldn’t account for the option in this situation. They disrespected the Bears’ wide receivers and played man coverage all over the line. The Bears had a zone read called to their left. On the backside, DeMarcus Lawrence wasn’t blocked so Fields could make the read.
After the snap, each defensive back ran with his man assignments. Lawrence loaded the running back, and because the defense was in regular man coverage, no one had to answer to Fields.
When Fields got to the edge, the only defender left to tackle him was the deep safety.
Again, you don’t want to see too many third-down runs, but this is a good example of what can happen to a defense if it’s unlucky against the option, and why it needs to dedicate more time to stopping it.
Getsy also installed several option runs that make Fields the first option to carry the ball instead of the second, such as the contrabash, and they have also had success with straight QB sweeps. Having to account for the option will give opponents pause when they want to get aggressive and man Bears receivers.
On top of the option runs, I like how the Bears have added trend breakers to their offense based on how opponents have defended them.
Week 7, 4:49 left in second quarter, first-and-10
Often against teams running out of shotguns, defenses will set their fronts based on the alignment of the backs. In the picture above, the full-back lined up to the right of the defence. Against this alignment, the defense expects the back to cross Fields and drive zone to the left, meaning the defense must be prepared for a potential QB hold to the right.
But after the snap, the Bears ran the zone to the right without a QB option. Herbert had to do some nice footwork to get the handoff and then redirect in the other direction. Both Patriots linebackers look confused. Ja’Whaun Bentley (No. 8) bounced back and forth in both directions. Fullback Khari Blasingame tackled linebacker Mack Wilson Sr. (No. 30).
Every defender on the back end was sealed and Herbert found the cutback lane for a big gain.
Fields have also been dangerous running shoes. He throws well on the run and he’s dangerous with boots. As a result, defensive ends must either come up quickly to stop him or play slow on the backside.
Week 8, 9:53 left in the third quarter, first-and-10
Here, the Bears ran out of zone again with a receiver jab block on the backside. Receiver N’Keal Harry (No. 8) pokes the tailback, Lawrence, before blocking at the second level. But in the end, Lawrence was not blocked on this run.
Lawrence stepped up to defend Fields, leaving a huge cutback lane for Herbert, who scored a touchdown.
The @ChicagoBears was down by 21 points six minutes ago 👀
— NFL (@NFL) 30 October 2022
To counter a defensive end who plays the boot less aggressively, the Bears will have a blocker coming from the outside with depth.
Week 7, 11:25 left in first quarter, first-and-10
On this play, tight end Cole Kmet lined up as the No. 1 receiver (longest outside receiver). Instead of running a route, he made his way back towards the box and blocked for Fields on a boot.
Instead of moving towards the line of scrimmage, Kmet stayed deep and waited for the end. If the end went up like Lawrence did in the previous example, Kmet would be there to seal him. This is a smart way to ensure Fields can get to the rim and buy time for longer development routes, and it shows the Bears staff can come up with creative solutions to problems.
In addition to being able to weaponize his legs more, Fields has shown growth as a dropback passer. The Bears have used a lot of max protection plays with only two receivers running a route, allowing Fields time to throw down the field. The trade-off is that the Bears are unable to stress the defense with multiple receivers. They have to rely on Field’s ability to make tight throws and defenders get soaked up by play action.
When the Bears call traditional dropback plays, Fields has shown signs of speeding up the process.
4:40 left in the first quarter, first-and-10
Here, Fields had a three-man concept to the left and a single receiver running deep to the right. Fields saw press coverage and thought he might have had a one-on-one matchup he wanted to attack before the snap.
After the snap, the corner bailed deep instead of playing pressure. Fields saw the coverage and quickly moved on to the next progression.
The Patriots appeared to take their coverage with two players covering the flats, leaving a void for the cruiser in the middle of the field.
Fields saw the crosser in time and threw the ball with good timing and accuracy for a nice first down gain.
Fields needs to put a lot more reps like this on film to show that he’s really made significant improvements in the dropback passing game. With the addition of the option run game, the Bears don’t have to ask him to drop back at high speed, and when he does, he can see more predictable defenses because opponents are concerned with making sure they can defend the option.
In the first six weeks of the season, Fields’ true return rate (no screens or play action) was 55.2 percent, according to TruMedia. Since then, it has dropped to 42.9 percent, which would represent the lowest rate in the league over the course of the entire season. Running this type of offense forever shouldn’t be the goal, but with Fields showing signs of improvement, the Bears could ramp up the rebounding.
As the Bears have adjusted their offense, Fields’ accuracy has improved. In Weeks 1-6, Fields’ off-target completion rate was 21.7 percent, the highest in the NFL. In the last two games, it has dropped to 11.4 percent. In college, Fields was one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the class. Now that he seems more comfortable in attack and has a better understanding of what he’s doing, his accuracy shines through.
Fields also shows an increased understanding of the position’s playfulness. In Week 6, he led the offense at guard and was not benched, running without a catch when he threw one deep bomb to Dante Pettis for a touchdown.
Week 8, 0:21 left in second quarter, second and 10
On this play, Fields made the defense jump with his cadence. The receivers were prepared and ran four verticals, which can be the Bears’ go-to game when the defense jumps.
Even as the Bears receivers adjusted their responsibilities, the running back and offensive line executed the original play call: a slip screen again. On a screen, the offensive line intentionally lets the rush go. Fields knew this and still sat in the pocket to throw a deep ball, knowing he would take a monster hit.
Fields was able to throw a great ball and give the receiver a chance to make a play against the corner and safety. The pass fell incomplete, but it showed that Fields is learning how to manipulate the defense and has both the guts to stand in front of a rush and the arm talent to make a ridiculous throw off the back foot.
Those encouraging signs could lead to Poles and new head coach Matt Eberflus buying more into Fields. After trading away defensive backs Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith, the Bears acquired receiver Chase Claypool from the Steelers on Tuesday in exchange for a second-round pick. That’s a steep price to pay for a receiver who hasn’t improved after showing promise in his rookie year, but Claypool is a physical specimen who will help Fields complete some of the downfield bombs that Bears receivers haven’t been able to get down.
It took more time than it should have, but the Bears’ coaching staff deserves credit for building a well-designed offense around Fields’ strengths. In the coming weeks, they should continue to add run options and run/pass options to the offense.
Fields’ recent success in this new offense doesn’t guarantee he’ll be successful long-term, but it gives him the best opportunity to do so, and that’s all a coaching staff can give a young quarterback.
(Top photo: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)