LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The Chicago Bears have had a chance for an extended self-scout as a result of 11 days separating their last game from their road contest Monday against the New England Patriots (ESPN, 8:15 p.m. ET), but it’s doubtful they needed much time to identify their problems.
The storyline of their 2-4 start has been the struggles of second-year quarterback Justin Fields and the passing game.
Fields has been pressured on 46% of his dropbacks, the highest rate a quarterback has faced in the first six games of a season since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2009. He has also been sacked 23 times, tied for the most in the league.
Those stats usually draw focus to an ineffective offensive line, but according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bears have the second-best pass block win rate this season, with their offensive linemen sustaining blocks through 2.5 seconds 68% of the time.
“We all know we are improving there, but pass protection is everybody, right?” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said. “It's not only the offensive line, it's the tight ends, it's the running backs, it's the quarterback. Pass protection is always going to be all 11 of them, and we will improve on that."
The Bears have the 32nd-ranked passing offense (122.8 yards per game) for many reasons, and the line is not exempt from blame. But fault also lies with Fields averaging the longest time to throw, at 3.03 seconds, receivers not getting open fast enough and the scheme sometimes not playing to his strengths or creating easy completions.
But there may be solutions.
Establish a quicker passing game
One stat in the "Is it Fields or his offensive line?" debate is most telling: When opposing defenses do not record pass rush wins (all blockers hold up through 2.5 seconds), Fields is completing only 51% of his passes with 3 touchdowns, 4 interceptions and 15 sacks taken.
A heavier dose of play-action, misdirection and run-pass-option plays (RPOs) could help. RPOs are designed to beat man coverage, which no team runs more than the Patriots.
“You’re going to have quick reads; two-level reads and the ball is going to come out,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said. “You’re going to read one defender, it’s going to be high-low, you’re going to throw the football right away. That protects you up front.”
Chicago had to shuffle its offensive line after left guard Cody Whitehair was placed on injured reserve after Week 4. That halted a rotation between Lucas Patrick and Teven Jenkins at right guard, which took place throughout the first four games, and forced Patrick to move to left guard. The Bears originally signed Patrick to play center, but a thumb injury and subsequent rehabilitation has kept Sam Mustipher in that spot.
Coaches have left the door open for offensive line changes, and it’s possible Patrick finally moves to center with Michael Schofield III taking his place at left guard. Regardless of who’s blocking for Fields, establishing a quicker passing game would benefit not only the quarterback but the offensive line as a whole.
“When you get to be the aggressor it’s easier, I would think,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “You get your hands on them, you go to fight.
“But when you’re in a true five-or-seven step dropback pass, it’s a one-on-one and you’re retreating and someone’s running at you. So now you have [this] athlete that can play corner, but he’s playing defensive end at 270 pounds. Now you have a guy that can bull rush you, he can misdirect you.”
Utilizing different wide receivers
Of course, utilizing a quick passing game not only requires the quarterback to get the ball out quickly, but receivers need to get open just as fast.
Chicago’s receiving corps lacks depth behind Darnell Mooney, who has struggled in his role as the No. 1 receiver with just 17 catches, 241 yards and no touchdowns. But it’s possible the offense could get a boost of production if they call on different personnel.
Upping Velus Jones Jr.’s usage on offense is one place to start. The rookie wide receiver has 4.3 speed that’s different from anyone else in his position group. He has demonstrated that in just 15 offensive snaps, highlighted by a 9-yard jet sweep for a touchdown against Minnesota, and a catch on third-and-8 against Washington in Week 6 that set up Fields for his lone touchdown pass of the night five plays later.
“Velus has got a lot of talent and a lot of things he can bring to the football team, certainly with his speed and athletic ability in space, and we're going to try to utilize that,” Eberflus said. “And we're going to keep doing that.”
Another unknown is N’Keal Harry, a former first-round pick of the Patriots whom the Bears acquired in July for a seventh-round pick. Harry was a healthy scratch against Washington. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, the receiver, who was recently activated off injured reserve, provides a physical element that has been missing.
“He can make contested catches, he can win one-on-ones in the red zone, he can elevate and make plays on the fade ball,” Bowen said.
More designed runs for Fields
The Bears own one of the NFL’s worst red zone touchdown rates at 46.7%. In losses to the New York Giants and Washington Commanders, Chicago made a total of six trips inside the 20-yard line and came away without a touchdown.
The red zone is where the Bears could benefit from utilizing their quarterback’s running ability more often. Chicago has only called 13 designed runs for the 6-3, 228-pound Fields through six games, totaling 28 yards. Only three of those have been in the red zone, with one coming inside the 10-yard line: a shotgun run on fourth-and-goal from the Packers’ 1-yard line that did not convert.
“That’s an element that’s missing inside the red zone, especially the low red zone,” Bowen said. “You can run quarterback power and pull, kick out and give Fields a lead blocker and he runs right through the C-gap and says, ‘I dare you guys to stop us.’ You can do those things because of those physical traits he has."
Designed runs are different from the scrambles Fields has pulled off to make game-changing plays outside the pocket.
“Certainly, he’s fast and can do that,” Eberflus said. “We always want to be able to look at all those options to get the ball into the end zone and down the field. We’re looking at all those things right now.”