In the painful postgame minutes Monday night, tight end Cole Kmet approached rookie quarterback Justin Fields in the Heinz Field visitors’ locker room to talk about the passing attack.
“We’re almost there,” Kmet told Fields.
That’s encouraging and damning, the same as any declaration about potential.
“We’re real close,” running back David Montgomery said. “But you get tired of ‘close.’ ’’
The Bears have been saying they’re close for weeks. On Monday, they offered proof — their 21 fourth-quarter points were the fourth-most in modern franchise history. The three TDs — one pass, one run and the return of a fumbled punt — were more points than they’ve scored in six full games this season.
Then there was the confidence Fields showed when he took possession behind by six points with 2:47 left — and marched the team 75 yards for a touchdown in 1:06. He threw three completions — for nine, 39 and 16 yards — and scrambled twice for 11 yards.
“You can be the guy who always gets put in that position and doesn’t show up,” Fields said. “Or you can be that guy who shows up in the big moments. That’s what my mindset was. I was just calm. And I was just focused on showing up.”
The Bears have reason to enter the bye week optimistic about their pass game — or, at least, with as much of a rosy outlook as their 3-6 record will allow.
Here are reasons why — and factors that might stand in their way:
Explosive pass plays
At halftime in Pittsburgh, Fields was averaging 15.8 air yards per pass, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was averaging 3.2. Both had the same number of passing yards: 63.
Air yards, then, don’t always equal success. But it’s a promising development, particularly when paired with the Bears’ above-average running game.
Over the last two games — in Week 8 against the 49ers, then against the Steelers — no one in the NFL has averaged more air yards per attempt than Fields’ 12.82. Fields went 9-for-16 for 225 yards on passes that traveled at least 10 yards through the air Monday, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
The Bears had 12 pass plays of 20 yards or more through the first seven games, and eight in the two games since.
“Seeing the explosive plays, seeing our drives get put together, it just gives our offense more confidence and just pushes us to work harder,” Fields said. “Because we know we’re on the brink of being a great offense, so we’re just going to keep working.”
But first, he needs time. Fields has been sacked a league-high 29 times for a league-most 219 yards. His sack rate of 13.4% — the 29 sacks divided by pass attempts — is the worst in the NFL since Raiders rookie Andrew Walter in 2006.
Over the last two games, the Bears have allowed seven sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Coach Matt Nagy said the line played “better” against Pittsburgh, though. Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt had three sacks, but they came on instinct plays: a run-pass option, a naked bootleg and a coverage sack on a quick throw.
“We want to keep growing there,” Nagy said.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Fields faked a handoff and looked up the left seam toward tight end Jimmy Graham. With linebacker Devin Bush blitzing and jumping to try to bat the pass, Fields zipped a pass between two safeties: Terrell Edmunds, who was giving chase, and Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was closing in over the top.
“That’s probably a top-3 throw in the NFL this season,” Nagy said. “With who he had in his face, the way he threw it, the accuracy, the timing, etc., that’s a special, rare throw. When you see those throws, you get excited.”
Speaking of rare: It was Graham’s second catch all season. As the passing game has matured, Fields has leaned on a wider variety of targets. Nine of Kmet’s 28 catches and 111 of his 284 yards have come over the last two weeks. Wide receiver Allen Robinson’s 68 yards Monday were his most all season. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, Graham and Robinson had their longest catches of the year against the Steelers.
The Bears spent the entire preseason — in practices and games — pairing Andy Dalton, not Fields, with starting pass catchers. That shortsightedness was Nagy’s fault — and might prove to contribute to his downfall. They’re trying to develop chemistry on the fly.
“There’s some facet of us trying to find out what we’re comfortable with a lot of the times,” Kmet said. “We’ve been figuring that out here and there. So hopefully we kinda take this time during the bye week to reflect on what’s been working for us and what we can get back to.”
There’s no better test of passing accuracy than being able to do it when everyone expects a throw.
Through the first seven games, the Bears converted 31.3% of their third-down tries, the worst number in the NFL. In the two games since, they’ve converted on 44.4% of their third downs, the league’s ninth-best mark.
Fields’ inaccuracy is partly to blame. His on-target percentage ranks 29th in the league, according to ProFootballReference.com, while his percentage of poor throws, 24.7, leads the league.
But there’s also a straight line between the Bears’ third-down struggles and the coaching staff’s inability to get the ball to Robinson and Graham, two of their three most expensive offensive players. Bears coaches talk about Robinson every week when putting in their third-down and red-zone plays. Graham, who led the Bears with eight touchdown catches last season, has yet to score.
“Trust me,” Nagy said last week, “there’s plenty of stuff that we’re trying to get to in certain areas of this game — whether it’s first down, second down, third down, red zone — and for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened as much.”
In the last two games, Fields has an 87.4 passer rating. That’s nothing to frame — Mitch Trubisky’s career mark is an almost-identical 87.3 — but it beats Fields’ 61.8 rating over the first seven games.
He’s improving. If one occurrence is a fluke and two is coincidence, the Bears need a third good passing game in a row Nov. 21 against the Ravens to qualify as a trend.
“Just keep going,” Fields said. “Don’t change. Don’t think. Just keep working. Keep working like it’s Week 1.”