The Bears missed a big opportunity in Sunday’s 27-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
No, this has nothing to do with them missing out on another chance for victory No. 4 in what is now a 3-8 season. It has to do with that franchise quarterback they are developing and — well, at least were — trying to keep healthy.
While Justin Fields has become one of the more electrifying players in the NFL this season, there’s no doubt the Bears have also been walking a fine line with the number of times he has carried the football. Earlier this season, Fields was a sitting duck in the pocket and it didn’t take very much film study to understand that using him on designed runs was actually resulting in him getting hit fewer times per game.
That trend started to change a week ago against the Lions, however, when Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy relied heavily on the zone read — probably a little too much — and Fields took a few more impactful hits to the body than you would prefer.
And regardless of the collisions, Fields admitted last Wednesday that his legs were starting to feel a little tired after rushing the ball 28 times for 325 yards over the last two games.
Proceed with caution, right? Wrong. Fields ran the ball a season-high 18 times against the Falcons, with the second-to-last carry resulting in a shoulder injury that head coach Matt Eberflus called “day-to-day” while also oddly not ruling out the possibility that it is season-ending (it probably isn’t).
But, look, this isn’t a column about running Fields less. Why would you? It’s working. The Bears have the No. 1 rushing attack and Fields currently ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing — as a quarterback.
This is really about one moment. And a missed opportunity in a quarter where Fields was actually having more success throwing the ball.
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If you missed it, do yourself a favor and watch the Bears’ second-to-last drive of the game, which started late in the third quarter. Fields was playing quarterback — and doing so at an extremely high level.
(Warning: Critics who clearly don’t watch the games and don’t think Fields can throw should NOT read further.)
• 3rd-and-3: Fields sits in the pocket, scans the field from left to right and hits Chase Claypool on at least his third (maybe fourth) read for a gain of a six and a first down.
• 3rd-and-3: Fields makes a great pre-snap read and immediately hits Cole Kmet in the flat for five yards and first down.
Next play: Fields sits in the pocket with no one open, redirects Kmet out of pass protection because he had no one to block, rolls to his right and throws an absolute laser to David Montgomery down the right sideline for a gain of 32.
3rd-and-12: Fields stands in the pocket, doesn’t pull the trigger on a checkdown to Kmet, escapes pressure to the left, runs all the way to the right, and hits Equanimeous St. Brown for a gain of 14 and a first down.
For everyone asking Fields to prove he can make big plays with his arm in the fourth quarter, he just did that on a clutch, game-tying fourth-quarter drive in Atlanta.
Naturally, the defense couldn’t keep the game tied, so Fields once again had to take the field, this time down three with 1:47 left in the game. Still, this was a big opportunity to build on what Fields had just done with his arm, in a game where the Falcons had actually done a decent job of stopping him as a run threat (he only had seven rushing yards in the second half).
And that’s when Getsy called a quarterback sweep to the left on first down, a play in which Fields didn’t look nearly as fast as he normally does and fell awkwardly on his shoulder as he was tackled out of bounds.
Anyone with a television could see Fields wasn’t 100 percent in the fourth quarter. FOX showed him getting stretched out and even holding his hamstring. It turned out he was dealing with cramps.
“I thoughts we had it under control, the cramps,” Eberflus said Monday at Halas Hall. “We know he’s dealt with that before, because obviously he puts out a lot of energy during the game and we’re gonna call our plays that we think are the best there. So that’s what we did and we went with it.”
Eberflus wasn’t going to throw his offensive coordinator under the bus, but considering Fields’ health (including the fact that Fields admitted his legs were tired during the week) and the success he was having throwing the ball, it was a questionable play call at best.
When it comes to the risk/reward of running with Fields, the risk far outweighed the reward in that situation.
The injury required a timeout to keep Fields in the game. And it was clear he was hurting after his left (non-throwing) shoulder was slammed into the turf. So when Fields ran the ball again on second down, it sure seemed like coaching malpractice.
“That was a mistake. That was supposed to be a halfback draw,” Eberflus said. “(Fields) was supposed to hand it off there. That was supposed to be (Montgomery) going up the middle.”
Indeed, the replay shows Montgomery looking for the handoff while Fields opts to keep the ball instead. Eberflus called it a “miscommunication.”
To make matters worse, Fields then threw high to Montgomery on third down and was picked off. The sequence was a disaster and it may end up costing Fields a game or two.
“You got to balance (the running). And I’ve said that since we started this, since that New England game,” Eberflus said. “I’m still saying the same thing. You got to be smart. You got to stay out of harm’s way.
“And we’re constantly talking to him about that, because he is an aggressive guy, and he’s strong and all those things, but he is our quarterback. We got to make sure that he does get to the sideline and works himself out, and when he is on the middle part of the field, slide. He did a pretty good job of that yesterday, but he was in harm’s way a couple times.”
Eberflus seemed to be putting that on Fields, but let’s be honest: it was the coaching staff that put him in harm’s way on the final drive.
And now the coaches have to be smart about how to handle the quarterback for the rest of the season.
Fortunately, the early belief is that Fields’ shoulder injury isn’t too serious. There’s hope it’s something he can play through, especially because it’s his non-throwing shoulder. Conflicting reports have emerged about Fields’ shoulder injury.
But should he play through it? That’s a different question. Considering his legs ran out of gas in Atlanta, his lower half could probably use a break for a week anyway.
At 3-8, the only thing that matters in the final six games is player development. And to develop, Fields needs to be healthy.
“Certainly, all those things have to be looked at,” Eberflus said. “When you’re looking at injury for any player, what are the long-term effects of that and then where is it? Where exactly is it? Is it something that we can play through or is it something that we can have rest? With any player, we take into the equation those two things.”
Remember, Mitch Trubisky used to play with a cumbersome shoulder brace on and it certainly didn’t help his mechanics. Neither did the fear of that shoulder getting hit.
Eberflus didn’t provide much hope about Fields playing this week, instead opting to keep the Jets guessing. But this is probably a week to proceed with more caution than the Bears did last week. The Jets’ front seven is damn good and there appears to be more to lose than to gain by throwing an injured quarterback out on the field.
Be smart, Flus.