Nothing matters more to the Chicago Bears’ present and future than the development of 11th overall pick Justin Fields, and he got a chance to continue proving himself in the 2nd half of the Bears’ Saturday afternoon preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
So what did we learn from Justin’s showing? Let’s dive right in and talk about it.
Fields’ day was much, much better than the box score showed
Justin Fields’ stats from Saturday were fairly pedestrian (officially completing 47% of his passes (9/19) for 80 yards along with another 46 yards rushing on 4 scrambles) but I think those numbers leave out the context needed to understand them — the Bears’ 2nd & 3rd string WRs (namely Riley Ridley, Chris Lacy, Jon’Vea Johnson) had anything but a banner day against Buffalo and left somewhere between 3 and 5 plays on the field.
Don't let Box Score Scottie tell you Fields didn't play well yesterday -- Fields showed yet again that he could deliver the ball downfield with ease, his WRs weren't up to the task.— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) August 23, 2021
I hope he plays with better WRs/OL soon, last throw sailed a bit high bc he couldn't step into it pic.twitter.com/UES2XwBByM
Fields picked up right where he left off last week, delivering the ball downfield accurately with deft flicks of the wrist that consistently provided his receivers chances at big plays. Throws like the first one of the set above stand out to me — that ball is beautifully placed 30 yards down the sidelines, and just because Riley Ridley didn’t catch it doesn’t mean Allen Robinson or Darnell Mooney won’t in the future.
Not all of Fields’ throws were perfect, certainly Jon’Vea Johnson (last throw in the set) might’ve wanted the ball a bit lower than he got it, but even so his receivers were rarely left chasing balls flying well over their heads. When Fields gets his opportunities downfield (like the play-action throw to Jesse James), he’s cashing in.
Part of that success was because...
The Bears made great use of pre-snap motion in the 3rd Quarter
Fields did a good job overall with his pre-snap processing, helped in large part by the Bears’ play-callers using tons of pre-snap motion. Due to the TV broadcast’s insistence on showing the formation as late as possible (and the lack of All-22 footage available from preseason games) it’s hard to say *exactly* how often the Bears sent a man in motion, but across the roughly 18 plays the Bears ran in the 3rd quarter they put a man in motion on 10 of them (10 motions/18 plays). Suffice to say, this is a vast improvement over last year’s 30th place ranking in this category.
This helped Fields diagnose coverages efficiently and get the ball out on-time, leading to nice opportunities like the endzone shot shown below — Fields sends Khalil Herbert in motion out of the backfield and doesn’t see an ILB follow him, indicating either standard Cover 2/Cover 4 or the more rare Cover 5 (aka 2-man).
This tells him that, whatever the coverage, his best shot at a 3rd down score will be splitting the safeties with a Jesse James streak route and a back-of-the-endzone throw. James doesn’t get a great jump on the ball, but ultimately the throw attacks the right area of the defense and that’s what matters.
This is why I'm frustrated with football broadcasts -- sure, we get a shot of Fields, but we miss that he motions Herbert out of the backfield pre-snap.— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) August 23, 2021
If you miss that, you miss Fields recognizing he's looking at C2/C4 zone. Post snap, he attacks it perfectly. Nice read. pic.twitter.com/LcrPlnaSTE
For those wondering, the Bears’ use of motion dropped dramatically in the 4th quarter, with Fields finishing out the TD drive he started in the 3rd (1 motion/2 plays) before only using motion once in the game’s final 14 plays (1 motion/14 plays).
This could’ve been for a litany of reasons, like...
- The Bears wanted to specifically work on Fields’ blitz-pickups and hot-routes
- The Bears didn’t trust their 4th stringers to get lined up properly (you can actually see a few moments of confusion on film)
- The Bears were worried about putting too much on tape in the preseason
...but ultimately the numbers are what they are and it’s up to you to decide what what you think.
Fields and the Bears also mixed 5 play-action passes in with Fields’ 13 3rd quarter attempts, but it remains to be seen whether that emphasis will carry over to the regular season. Either way, seeing Matt Nagy incorporate so much motion and play action into one quarter’s callsheet seems like a positive sign.
Speaking of Fields’ 4th quarter, it certainly started off with fireworks... and not the good kind.
Fields’ ability to adjust protection against the blitz may define his starter-readiness
If you haven’t seen a replay of Fields getting rock-em-sock-em-robotted to open the 4th quarter, here you go.
Justin Fields got absolutely DESTROYED by this hit. pic.twitter.com/73fWgfDO1b— David Hookstead (@dhookstead) August 21, 2021
Geoff Schwartz does a much better job than I could of walking through the specifics of what happened on this sack, so check out the video below for a quick breakdown of what went wrong.
Love talking about empty protection! Justin Fields took an unfortunate hit this weekend that could have been avoided! Let’s talk about the options he’s got in empty protection including just throwing hot! He won’t make this mistake again. pic.twitter.com/UIKPTAmbVG— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) August 23, 2021
As Geoff says, this wasn’t a great rep for anyone and that includes Fields. A more veteran center might have saved Fields’ bacon, but ultimately the preseason is all about reps so I’m hopeful this sack eventually becomes “an emphatic teaching point on the value of proper protection” rather than “a dooming sign of things to come”.
Thankfully, whether by design or by happy accident, Fields had plenty of chances to prove himself vs extra rushers throughout the 4th quarter. The 5th and 6th plays of this set show him handling similar blitzes to the one that nailed him effectively, and the 8th play sees him mitigate disaster on a covered-up screen attempt as well.
Missed one earlier -- here's all 8 reps from Fields vs BUF blitzes.— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) August 24, 2021
Fields does a great job rebounding with not 1 but 2 nice reps vs free runners, and he also mitigates damage well on the last play of this set (a blown screen). Nice response after the big hit to open the 4th. pic.twitter.com/axM2axxi0Y
Fields, a rookie, certainly isn’t a finished product. Thankfully, reps like these (good and bad!) only serve to help him get closer to the player he wants to be.
That said, if the Bears really want to speed up Fields’ development, there’s one thing they should consider...
Reps with 1st team WRs would help Fields tremendously
In the early 4th quarter, Fields and the Bears lined up for a 2-point conversion attempt. The resulting play made it very clear that there are limits to what Fields can learn from playing with backups — I broke the play down in the video below:
Justin Fields should get reps with the #Bears 1st string WRs as soon as he can, and this play is a perfect example of why — turn your on and I'll walk you through how Chris Lacy and Riley Ridley turned a normal redzone rep into Fields running for his life. pic.twitter.com/oQOWjqfHS2— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) August 23, 2021
(While Twitter is one of the best embeddable video-players I’ve found, I’d always appreciate a like and a view on my YouTube channel! Thank you so much!)
It’s the preseason, so it’s never easy to tell the difference between talent issues and playcall/coaching issues, but it’ll undoubtedly help Fields more when practicing plays intended for Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, and Jimmy Graham if he can throw to the genuine article rather than Chris Lacy, Riley Ridley, and Jesper Horsted. If the Bears plan to start Fields before the bye week, they should let Fields get reps with his eventual teammates.
Update: Thankfully the Bears seem to have done just that based on reports out of today’s practice, hopefully this is a sign of good things to come:
While Andy Dalton is still very clearly getting the first-team reps, I’ve seen Justin Fields complete passes to Allen Robinson, Jimmy Graham and Darnell Mooney today. So they are working some of the top pass catchers in with Fields. #Bears— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) August 23, 2021
Justin Fields had another good showing on Saturday afternoon that left viewers with plenty of good to take away. Between the motion-centered play-calling of his first 3 drives, his consistent accuracy throwing the football, and the obvious playmaking potential his mobility provides, there’s a lot of things for Bears fans to be excited about going into this Saturday night’s contest with Tennessee.
Fields has things he needs to work on, but I think he’s a few protection calls away from being ready to start in the NFL. Whether that means he plays in Los Angeles or not, though, is up to Matt Nagy.