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Justin Fields needs to keep running to help unlock the passing game

Nicholas Moreano Avatar
June 28, 2023

Justin Fields needs to keep on running.

That wasn’t a typo. In order for Fields to take a leap as a passer in his third season in the NFL, the 24-year-old quarterback needs to remain a threat as a runner.

NFL Network analysts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks chose the Chicago Bears as one of their four teams to make a jump offensively on the “Move the Sticks” podcast. In Brooks’ reasoning, he mentioned Fields being more comfortable with offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and the team adding more playmakers around the young quarterback.

Bucky also highlighted how Fields’ ability to run will help him in the passing game.

“When your quarterback rushes for over 1,100 yards, it forces the way you have to defend him on defense,” Brooks said. “So whether or not he throws with touch, timing, anticipation, he is now going to see more man-on-man coverage because the only way to get the plus one in the box is you got to man up on the outside and drop the safety in. That means, now, bigger receivers on the outside. If they can win, he doesn’t have to worry about throwing into windows.

He has to throw it to a spot with a get-open specialist whether it’s Chase Claypool or DJ Moore or (Darnell) Mooney. Those guys will be able to get open. I expect to see a better version of Justin Fields even though he may never be the polished passer that some people want him to be.”

Brooks makes a great point on how defenses would likely use man coverage to play Fields given his ability to create explosive and game-changing plays with his legs. Ideally, defensive coordinators would want to utilize more zone concepts against Fields. First, more defenders’ eyes would be on the quarterback, making it tougher to generate big runs. Second, playing zone would force Fields to diagnose the coverage, make the proper read and then an accurate throw.

It makes a lot of sense. Now that Fields has much-improved weapons around him combined with another year of experience with Getsy, you can connect the dots and see why Fields and this Bears offense are in a position to take a leap in 2023.

Fields against Man and Zone Coverage

Brooks brought up how defenses could play more man coverage against Fields in 2023. So, let’s take a look at how Fields performed last season when the defense either was in single or zone coverage. All stats were provided by Pro Football Focus.

Justin Fields targeting single coverage:

  • 66.6 PFF Grade (26th among QBs)
  • 32/85 (37.6 completion % — Ranked 2nd worst among QBs with at least 40 drop backs
  • 7 TDs/4 INTs
  • 19.3 ADot (Average Depth of Target) while targeting single coverage (Highest in the NFL)
  • To use a baseball analogy, Fields wanted the homerun as opposed to the single when he saw the defense in single coverage

Justin Fields targeting zone coverage:

  • 70.0 PFF Grade (29th among QBs)
  • 50/70 (63.3 completion % — Ranked 29th in the NFL)
  • 1 TD / 5 INTs
  • 12.0 ADot (10th among QBs)

Those numbers clearly aren’t great. That’s what happens when a young quarterback is in a new offense behind a leaky offensive line that has no true receiving threats. When you put that all together, it shouldn’t be all too surprising how poorly the Bears finished in the passing game.

There was a stretch, though, when the Bears were one of the best offenses in the NFL. After the Bears’ mini bye week following the 12-7 loss to the Commanders on Thursday Night Football, the team made some much-needed adjustments in the offensive game plans. Getsy got Fields on the move, which helped him as a passer and also as a runner. Here is what Fields did from Week 7 (at New England) through Week 11 (at Atlanta).

  • 77.1 PFF Grade (12th among QBs)
  • 773 Passing Yards (24th)
  • 9 Pass TDs / 3 INTs
  • On throws 10+ yards downfield, Fields finished 21 of 39 and threw 6 TDs (T-4th) / 0 INTs
  • Fields also led the NFL with 17 rushes of 10+ yards during this span
  • 68 rushes for 552 yards and 6 rushing TDs

Justin Fields targeting single coverage:

  • 14 of 31
  • 5 TDs / 1 INT

Justin Fields targeting zone coverage:

  • 18 of 22
  • 0 TDs / 0 INTs
  • 81.8 completion % (3rd — only Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes were better)

Anytime you can be in the same company as Burrow and Mahomes, you know you’re doing some right. In that five-game stretch, Fields dissected zone coverage with his 81.8 completion % and then put points on the scoreboard against single coverage with his five touchdowns.

The offense was “unlocked” and Fields was one of the best quarterbacks in the league from Weeks 7 – 11.

A huge reason the offense averaged 29.6 points per game was because of Fields’ mobility. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound quarterback who runs a 4.44 40 challenges a defense whether he throws a pass on a designed rollout, rushes on a QB-designed run or improvises to make a play happen through the air or with his legs.

Run with purpose

Fields has a special gift that a majority of the NFL quarterbacks don’t have, so he can’t abandon running altogether. Even though the 2023 season is all about figuring out what Fields is capable of as a passer.

Simply put, Fields still being a threat in the run game will help him to become a more effective passer. What Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko need to figure out is how to properly utilize Fields’ legs.

Fields finished last season with 160 rushes for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns. He was the seventh-leading rusher in the NFL in yards and had the second-most rush attempts for a quarterback behind Jalen Hurts (165). Those numbers need to come down in 2023, especially given the fact that Fields also lead the league in fumbles with nine.

Another drawback of relying on his legs is the amount of pressure that comes with it. Fields was sacked 55 times last season — tied for the most with Russell Wilson. According to PFF, Fields also accounted for 23.9% of the pressures he faced in 2022, and 13 sacks were tied for the most with Jalen Hurts and Justin Herbert for quarterback own pressures allowed.

Can’t forget to also mention that Fields missed two games last season due to injury. So reducing the amount of times he runs the ball should be beneficial to his overall health.

To make the necessary improvements it will be on the coaches and Fields. Getsy should still be utilizing RPOs and QB-designed runs, but he needs to be cognitive on the number of times and in what situations he draws up those types of plays. For Fields, he needs to trust his receivers and throw the ball in what is considered “NFL Open,” and run when he absolutely needs to and not necessarily when he can.

Luckily, the Bears have a player like Moore who will help out Fields and the coaching staff. Getsy can instill more trust into Fields now that he has a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. This should help the quarterback make quicker decisions to ultimately get the ball out faster instead of diverting to his legs to make a play.

Year 3 is an extremely important season for Fields. General manager Ryan Poles made the moves necessary to surround the quarterback with talent. Now, it’s time to see how it all comes together.

If the Bears continue to make Fields a threat on the ground, then the offense will make some drastic improvements this upcoming season.

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