LAKE FOREST – Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields crouched near the Washington Commanders’ 10-yard line with his face in his left hand and his helmet in his right. A 12-7 loss was sealed seconds earlier when Darnell Mooney came down short of the goal line with what would have been a game-winning catch.
It was a low point for Fields and an offense, especially a passing attack, that has hovered near the bottom of the league standings all season.
Whether it was fair or not, Fields was expected to take a jump in his second season, despite the fact the Bears focused on defense early in the draft and didn’t land any of the elite wide receivers who changed teams this offseason. And despite a new regime implementing a new system.
As Fields crouched on the Soldier Field turf after that Thursday night game on Oct. 13, it was fair to wonder if that jump would take place.
The Bears had 10 days to figure something out before their Monday night game at New England in Week 7, and their self-scout during that time seems to have changed the narrative of Fields’ evolution.
Fields now has the highest QBR (55.4) among NFC North quarterbacks and leads the league in QBR since Week 7 (83.9). And he was just named the NFC offensive player of the week after his 178 rushing yards against the Miami Dolphins set the record for the most by a quarterback in a regular-season game in NFL history. Fields threw three touchdowns (no interceptions) and ran for another, at one point prompting Miami coach Mike McDaniel to jokingly ask him to “stop it.”
Before the transformation, Fields was getting sacked and pressured at the highest rate in the league as he held onto the ball far too long. Getting rid of the ball quicker is just one way he has flipped the script, but there are others. And while the offensive resurgence hasn’t stopped the Bears from losing two of the three since Washington, the development of their 23-year-old quarterback was considered Priority 1 for a team in a rebuild.
More designed runs
Fields reached 20.33 mph on his 61-yard scramble TD against the Dolphins, which was his fourth carry that reached 20+ mph since Week 7. That ties Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne for the most such runs in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats.
“He’s certainly a lot faster when you see it in person than I thought, for sure,” coach Matt Eberflus said.
Justin Fields reached 20.33 mph on his 61-yard scramble TD, his 4th carry reaching 20+ mph since Week 7 (T-most in NFL with Travis Etienne).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 6, 2022
Fields on Scramble Runs (2022):
🔸 42 carries (1st)
🔸 411 yards (1st)
🔸 +188 rushing yards over expected (1st)#MIAvsCHI | #DaBears pic.twitter.com/9gzTTurSQu
The key has been calling more designed runs for one of the most dangerous runners in the game. The Bears called 13 designed runs for Fields through the first six weeks, and 21 since Week 7.
Fields also has been dangerous with scramble runs. His 42 scramble runs lead all quarterbacks, and his 411 rushing yards and 188 rushing yards over expected are also tops among QBs. According to Next Gen Stats, Fields had 113 rushing yards over expected against the Dolphins, which is the most by a quarterback in a game since Next Gen began tracking this area in 2016.
The biggest knock on an offense that features a running quarterback is its sustainability. It’s true the Bears will struggle to compete consistently when averaging 147.4 passing yards per game, but the way Fields has been put in position to make plays with his running is a major reason for the offensive turnaround.
This is best illustrated in Fields’ expected points added (EPA) per dropback, which goes beyond passer rating by accounting for a quarterback’s ability to run and scramble. From Weeks 1-6, Fields ranked 25th out of 32 quarterbacks with a -0.05 EPA/dropback. He’s eighth in that category since Week 7 (+0.01).
Fields keeps drives alive with his legs. Against the Dolphins, he had seven carries for 111 yards and a touchdown on third downs and converted six times for a first down.
“He definitely makes us right,” left guard Cody Whitehair said. “When there’s a little bit of pressure back there, he uses his legs and makes something out of nothing, when things do break down. As an offensive lineman, that’s pretty cool.”
Getting rid of the ball quicker
Fields remains the most sacked quarterback (33) in the NFL after nine games. Chicago’s offensive line often bore the brunt of that criticism despite Fields averaging 3.03 seconds to throw through the first six weeks of the season, which was the longest in the NFL. And despite the fact the OL ranked among the league’s best in ESPN’s pass block win rate.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Fields had a 15 QBR (26th in the NFL) on plays when an opposing defense recorded a pass rush win, and his completion rate and completion rate over expectation – the latter of which quantifies a quarterback’s completion rate compared to what it would be while accounting for the difficulty of the throw – were the worst in the NFL.
The Bears had a pass block win rate of 68% (ranked second) during the first six weeks, but that figure has dropped to 59% (16th) since Week 7. Chicago’s pass protection has struggled more in spite of the offense’s turnaround, but Fields is doing a better job getting rid of the ball faster, which has led to fewer sacks and pressures.
Since Week 7, Fields is averaging 2.85 seconds to throw. He has the best QBR (99.3) in the NFL during that span when opposing defenses get a pass rush win, and he’s averaging the third-highest yards per dropback (8.6) and a 64% completion percentage.
“You want to block for him as long as it takes for him to get rid of the ball, but I think it’s him just knowing the offense better,” right tackle Riley Reiff said. “He hasn’t been in this system for very long.
“As an offensive lineman, it helps you out if the ball is out faster, but there’s certain coverages, there’s so much stuff he’s looking at where it’s tough to get the ball out that quick. He’s doing a really good job lately, and I think the more games, the more snaps, the more comfortable he’s going to get.”
Fields’ goal during his early-season ups and downs was to improve his pocket presence, and the stats confirm he’s making strides. His completion percentage has jumped from 33% to 60% while under pressure, while his yards per attempt (6.5 to 8.8) and Total QBR (29 to 98) has also increased. Most importantly, he hasn’t thrown an interception while under pressure since Week 7.
“It’s just pocket presence, him knowing the reads, him going through his reads, him delivering the ball, him feeling comfortable to understand that, hey, he’s gonna be able to ride the pocket, step up and deliver it,” Eberflus said. “And again, that’s a learned skill. He’s got to be able to go through that process.”
That’s been a focal point for Fields, who sees the fully developed version of himself as a quarterback evolving his ability as a passer. One area he needs to improve on is accuracy as he ranks 33 of 34 qualified quarterbacks on off-target percentage (21.0%).
“Pocket presence, getting to the checkdown faster,” Fields said. “I think that's one thing I can grow at now and just keep developing.”
‘More and more comfortable’
There aren’t statistics to measure confidence, but it’s obvious Fields has gotten more comfortable learning his second offense in as many years.
“The experience has really led him to take the next step,” Eberflus said. “But also, as I think we’re learning him, and he’s learning the offense, it’s kind of both.
“So, we’re tailoring it to him more, but he’s also learning the scheme at the same time, if that makes sense. You can just feel him get more and more comfortable with it.”
One area that illustrates Fields’ comfort and confidence is his ability to read defenses. Because the Bears are such a prolific rushing team, opposing defenses counter with more man coverage – fewer defenders covering receivers and more near the line to stop the run. Fields has seen man coverage at the fourth-highest rate (49%) in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks.
Against man coverage in the first six weeks, Fields had a 25 QB (28th in the NFL) with two touchdowns and one interception. Since Week 7, his QBR has jumped to 82 (8th), and his six touchdown passes against man coverage (with one interception) leads the NFL over that span.
“The more you play, the more you see things, the more you see defenses and the more you get used to just seeing different looks,” Fields said. “I think I’m growing each and every day. I think everybody on our team is.”