Bucs’ defense ‘a great learning lesson’ for Justin Fields
Building confidence with big throws against a bad defense like the Lions’ doesn’t get you very far. The only lessons for most — if not all — rookie quarterbacks in the NFL are hard ones.
It’s hard to believe it was just three years ago that Mitch Trubisky torched the Buccaneers’ defense in one of the best quarterback performances in Bears history.
Trubisky threw for 354 yards and had six touchdown passes without an interception that day at Soldier Field. His 154.6 passer rating was the third-best in franchise history. He had pass plays of 47, 39, 35, 33, 31 and 30 yards. He threw touchdown passes to wide receivers, a tight end and a running back. He scrambled for gains of 26 and 23 yards. He won 48-10.
He did everything — but learn.
As it turned out, picking on bad defenses did nothing for Trubisky in the long term. He threw for 355 yards and three touchdowns without an interception against the Lions in 2018. He threw for three touchdowns without an interception against the Lions in 2019. He threw three touchdown passes without an interception against the Texans last season. But his momentum from all those glorious days lasted only until the next good defense he faced. Then he was just another struggling young quarterback trying to figure things out.
That’s where Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields is today, but with a much different opportunity against the Buccaneers’ defense Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
With just two starters remaining from the unit that Trubisky destroyed — linebacker Lavonte David and pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul — the Bucs’ defense has been transformed into a championship-caliber force that tormented Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl and comes at you from all directions.
It’s just what Fields needs. Whether the rookie succeeds or fails, lessons learned from a battle against a good defense is more valuable than the fool’s gold of a banner day against a bad defense. That’s one of several lessons learned during the Trubisky era.
Fields had his best passing day against the Lions in Week 4 — averaging 12.3 yards per attempt with completions of 64, 32, 28 and 27 yards. It didn’t take him to a new level. Fields threw for 111 yards the next week against the Raiders and 174 against the Packers.
This is not the ’85 Bears he’ll be facing, but a defense that will challenge him to learn. The Buccaneers are No. 1 in the NFL in rush defense but 27th in pass defense. Patriots rookie Mac Jones completed 31 of 40 passes for 275 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a 101.6 passer rating against the Buccaneers in Week 4 — and has a 105.0 rating in two games since.
Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said it’s a challenge for Fields “to be disciplined to stay within your rules.” Much more than against the Lions, it’s a test of how well he has been taught and how well he learns.
“It’s a great learning lesson for him,” Lazor said. “That, ‘Hey, this is why we install the way [we] do in the offseason. This is why you have OTAs and [why] you’re here in May and June to learn all the rules and get everyone together, and you repeat it in training camp.
“Throughout the season, you’re gonna face some teams where their blitz schemes are small amounting and you can really zero in. You’re gonna face some teams like this where they have a wide variety and you just have to stay within your rules. It’ll be good learning for him.”
Fields’ improvement through four starts has been difficult to quantify — his confidence; his resilience; his command of the huddle; going through his progressions.
“Being able to communicate how he sees things and how he likes things — not just with the coaches but with the players. The quarterback’s opinion matters — it’s just fact,” Lazor said. “His play speed just keeps getting better and better. That shows up in practice quite a bit and sometimes on game day.”
Sunday’s game will be another big test. He might learn some hard lessons, but in the NFL, there don’t seem to be any easy ones.