Justin Fields’ teammates have stopped marveling at the way he moves, the way he flusters defenses with his agility and top-end speed. At this point it’s expected that Fields will bust loose at least once every game, then turn on the jets for a huge run.
The latest explosive dash came against the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 4, when Fields turned what seemed like a simple zone-read keeper into a 55-yard touchdown in the Chicago Bears’ 28-19 loss. With one nasty cut in the backfield followed by some blinding acceleration, Fields left cornerback Keisean Dixon pretzeled behind the line of scrimmage and kept the rest of the Packers defense in his wake as he tore south toward the Soldier Field end zone.
“I feel like I was moving kind of slow, to be honest with you,” Fields said after the game.
Yep. Just a peak speed of 20.15 mph on that run, according to Next Gen Stats. Like he was running through quicksand. Ho-hum.
The wildest part: Fields went untouched on that sprint.
“It takes a special person to not get touched running up the middle,” Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson noted the next day. “He definitely does some amazing things. It’s something we enjoy.”
Johnson admits now that, in practice settings last season and during the spring and summer this year, the Bears defense may have gotten greedy in claiming success against Fields. Prohibited from laying a finger on their quarterback, Bears defenders sometimes watched Fields slither out of the pocket or take off downfield on a big scramble but insisted he broke free only because they couldn’t hit him.
“You’d see him running and you’re like, ‘Man, you probably would have gotten tackled,’” Johnson said. “Then when you go out there on a Sunday (in a game), you’re like, ‘No. They’re not tackling that dude.’
“Sometimes in practice, what we used to call sacks — like, ‘Oh, sack! Sack! Sack!’ — it’s like, ‘Nope, that probably wouldn’t have been a sack.’”
Added Bears left tackle Braxton Jones: “I’m not even surprised anymore. Justin’s legs are crazy. It’s awesome.”
Now, though, comes the tricky part as the Bears continue their offensive evolution under Fields. After an incredible run of incredible runs, how will the offense find its comfort zone in using Fields’ magical legs without overrelying on that gift or exposing him to unnecessary risk?
Since Week 5, Fields has averaged 102 rushing yards per game and scored seven touchdowns on the ground. He set an NFL regular-season record for a quarterback with 178 rushing yards against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9.
His touchdown run against the Packers was his third of at least 50 yards in the last four games. No other quarterback in the Super Bowl era has had that many 50-yard-plus rushing scores in a career.
That big play, however, was one of only six rushing attempts for Fields against the Packers, including a kneel-down to end the first half, a 1-yard sneak on the opening drive and two short scrambles on passing plays.
Twice the Bears used wildcat looks, sending direct snaps to running backs David Montgomery and Darrynton Evans to mix in read-option concepts. The snap to Evans came on first-and-goal from the 9-yard line in the third quarter, taking the ball out of Fields’ hands.
“We are trying to go with that in the future to take some hits off Justin,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said.
For context, Fields was playing for the first time since separating his left shoulder in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons two weeks earlier. So the Bears game plan against the Packers undoubtedly factored that in, prioritizing caution and trying to limit the hits Fields took.
But was that approach also a step in a new direction? That’s worth keeping an eye on over the final four games as Fields and the Bears seek a practical balance.
In explaining Fields’ reduced running against the Packers — he had only one scramble for 1 yard during a three-point second half — Eberflus explained it as a “flow of game” strategy.
“We were passing it so good, I think we were just going with that more,” he said. “I think that was the right thing to do.”
Not coincidentally, Fields had one of his better passing days, throwing for a season-high 254 yards and completing 80% of his passes. His pocket poise and patience seemed steady and he wasn’t sacked the entire game.
Eberflus expressed satisfaction with the improved rhythm and timing of the passing attack. He also hinted that going forward the Bears may use Fields as a runner on more situational terms.
“Red zone, third down, two-minute (drills),” he said. “When the game is there where it needs to be, to keep drives alive and score points.”
Fields enters this week with 905 rushing yards, on the doorstep of joining Michael Vick and Lamar Jackson as just the third quarterback in the 1,000-yard rushing club. But it’s worth wondering if 2022 will go down as the most prolific rushing season in his career, particularly as the Bears try to enhance his productivity as a passer, limit his exposure to injury and improve the balance in their offense.
This is a good problem to have. Yet the Bears might find themselves with a tricky risk-reward calculus, understanding that Fields’ special ability as a runner unlocked their offense in midseason, provided a flurry of big plays and led to a four-game tear in which they averaged 32 points.
But after a Week 10 loss to the Detroit Lions, Fields remarked that his legs felt heavy. And in the loss to the Falcons the next week, he fought cramping and later hurt his shoulder when he landed on the sideline after taking a routine hit from a defensive back after a routine run on the offense’s final possession.
With Fields inactive the next week, the offense scored only 10 points in nine true possessions in a lopsided road loss to the New York Jets. The Bears were reminded what Fields’ presence — and absence — means to their production and big-picture hopes. After a monthlong fireworks show, it was almost as if one of the mortar tubes shot sideways rather than into the sky, leaving the Bears a bit startled and anxious.
So now what? It will be up to Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy to find a formula that works, giving Fields opportunities to break games open with his running gifts while continuing to bring him along as a complete quarterback.
“He’s really getting a good grasp of the offense and we’re excited about where he is,” Eberflus said. “Obviously he can make dynamic plays. But we also want to see the ordinary plays, the check-downs, the easy passes. Take what the defense gives you. (It’s) all those types of things that he thinks he needs to improve on. And we do too.”
The final four games should offer an intriguing trial run to feel out what makes sense. It also will be a test of how well the Bears adjust to the different ways opponents choose to defend Fields.
Coming out of the Packers loss, Eberflus emphasized his desire to “spread the skill around” — a stated intent to make sure Fields, who leads the team with 128 rushing attempts, isn’t forced to carry too big of a load. A bigger mixture of wildcat looks and jet sweeps and creative concepts could be coming.
“I’ve said from the beginning and for several weeks now that we want to be very protective of Justin to make sure he is out of harm’s way,” Eberflus said last week.
These final four games should offer a better idea of exactly how that looks and what it means for the Bears.
Source: Berkshire mont