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1st-and-10: Justin Fields’ ‘breakthrough’ puts Nagy & Co. on the spot

The rookie quarterback’s instincts were largely responsible for his 103-yard rushing game. Now it’s up to the coaching staff to put Fields in position to take the offense to another level.

Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields (1) leaves the 49ers defense in his wake on a spectacular 22-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter Sunday.
Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields (1) leaves the 49ers defense in his wake on a spectacular 22-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter Sunday.
David Banks/AP

Justin Fields finding his comfort zone could be a watershed moment for the Bears.

Now what?

“He was very comfortable,” quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said of Fields’ performance in a 33-22 loss to the 49ers on Sunday at Soldier Field. “I thought that was by far his best game in terms of his footwork, his rhythm, and he got the ball out on time. That was our best game, by far.”

Fields’ breakthrough-looking performance didn’t exactly lift the Bears’ offense to a new level — they scored 22 points against a team allowing 24.5 per game going in. Even with Fields’ big rushing game — 10 carries for 103 yards and a touchdown — the Bears still only had 148 net passing yards, tied for the 24th-lowest in the NFL this season. Their 324 total yards were the fourth-most against the 49ers this season and 164th out of 244 in the NFL.

What it did, though, was confirm how much the Bears have to work with in Fields, which now puts the onus on the coaching staff to parlay his talents into better offensive production. Fields’ “breakthrough” was largely done on instinct, not by design.

As Fields progresses, that’s what this season becomes more and more about: Is this the coaching staff to turn him into the next big thing?

We’ll see about that. The Bears have been unable to turn their recent run-game success into an improved passing game. They’re still 32nd and last in the NFL in passing by a wide margin — more than 50 yards fewer than the 31st-ranked Saints. That’s a bit of a red flag. Now, with Fields presumably unleashed, coach Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and DeFilippo have their best opportunity to show us what they can do.

“Huge. Huge,” DeFilippo said when asked about the impact of having Fields’ breakthrough rushing game on tape for opponents to figure out. “The No. 1 impact is you can’t just tee off on the O-line. You’re going to have to be disciplined in your rush lanes, which means that you just can’t run up the field on this guy. He’s going to get up and out on you.

“I think it’s going to slow down the pass rush a little bit. That’d be my guess. Whether it does or not, we’ll see.”

What we’ll see most is if the Bears’ coaching staff can zig when defenses zag. As DeFilippo pointed out, the Steelers, seeing Fields run wild on film, can take that away on Monday night. But that should open up something else in Fields’ game. A player who can make them look like geniuses gives the coaching staff options.

“Without a doubt,” DeFilippo said. “I hate to put it all on the player, but things aren’t always perfect in the way you draw things up. And whenever the player has that ability to take off and go on third-and-six or whatever, and you get a first down, you’re like, ‘Have at it, man. Have at it, brother. Just take it.’ That adds a huge dynamic to our offense. Absolutely.”

2. Sean Desai and the defensive coaching staff are on the spot, as well, after a meltdown against the 49ers that spoiled Fields’ encouraging performance. The 49ers’ 467 yards were the most against the Bears’ defense in regulation since 2016 — 478 yards in a 41-21 loss to Kirk Cousins and Washington.

How bad was it? The Bears never forced the 49ers to punt — most noticeably when they allowed an 83-yard pass play to Deebo Samuel on a wide receiver screen on third-and-19 in the third quarter.

It was only the second time in the last 75 years that the Bears neither forced a punt nor got a takeaway in the same game. The only other time was in 2014 in a 38-17 loss to the Packers.

3. The return of nose tackle Eddie Goldman providing a lift for the Bears’ run defense was one of those offseason narratives that sounded right. But it hasn’t happened. With Goldman getting more and more comfortable, the run game has diminished, dropping to 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and yards per carry.

The Bears have allowed 154, 182 and 145 rushing yards in their last three games against the Packers, Buccaneers and 49ers — an average of 160.3 yards. That’s the worst three-game stretch since 2016 under John Fox, when the Bears allowed 558 yards (186.0 average) in the last three games of a 3-13 season.

4. Special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor’s stint as head coach was only one game, in an acting capacity and in a loss. But even in a small way, it nonetheless helped the cause of every special-teams coach trying to get a head-coaching job in the NFL — including Tabor and perhaps his mentor, Dave Toub, the former Bears special-teams coordinator now with the Chiefs, who has been passed over for too many head-coaching jobs.

During the week, Tabor was a special-teams coordinator with head-coaching responsibilities. But on game day, he was a head coach first and a special-teams coordinator second. You noticed the difference.

“I thought he did a hell of a job,” Nagy said. “[When] you get to game day . . . you have to have a sense of how the game’s going, and there’s a feel to it. That’s where I think coach Tabor did a wonderful job. There was no hesitation in his decision-making, and sometimes that’s what can get you as a head coach or a decision-maker — if there’s hesitation. He went with full conviction on all his decisions, and I was really, really impressed with him and very appreciative.”

5. Cairo Santos had a streak of 50 consecutive place-kicks (22 field goals, 28 extra points) snapped when he missed a PAT after Fields’ spectacular 22-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

But he was 3-for-3 on field goals against the 49ers (39, 40 and 25 yards), extending his franchise-record streak to 37 — fourth-best on the NFL’s all-time list for consecutive field goals. Adam Vinatieri holds the record with 44 for the Colts in 2015-16.

6. Never underestimate the mediocrity of the NFL.

7. Bits & Pieces: NFL teams were 9-0 this season with 37 minutes of possession or more in games decided in regulation until the Bears dominated time of possession 37:11 to 22:49 against the 49ers and lost. . . . Fields’ 103 rushing yards were the most against the 49ers by a quarterback since 2000, when the Saints’ Aaron Brooks had 108 yards on 11 carries. . . . Kyler Murray had seven carries for one yard against the 49ers in Week 5. . . . Fields’ deep-ball interception on his last pass dropped his passer rating from 103.8 to 84.6. . . . The Bears scored on their first three possessions against the 49ers (two fields goals and a touchdown) — the first time they’ve done that against an opponent other than the Lions since 2016 against the Giants.

8. Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week: Rams linebacker Leonard Floyd had two sacks and a tackle for loss in a 38-22 blowout of the Texans. Floyd has 4½ sacks this season and 17 sacks in 24 games with the Rams since leaving the Bears after the 2019 season.

9. Bear-ometer: 6-11 — at Steelers (L); vs. Ravens (L); at Lions (W); vs. Cardinals (L); at Packers (L); vs. Vikings (W); at Seahawks (L); vs. Giants (W); at Vikings (L).

10. A personal note: This edition of First-and-10 is dedicated to my father, Melvin Potash, who died Monday night at 92. A loyal Chicago Sun-Times subscriber virtually from the inception of the paper, my dad was my biggest fan and instilled in me a work ethic that has been invaluable. I have had no greater satisfaction in my career than making my dad proud. And he will always be a part of everything I write, and everything I do. He was the best!