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Bears weigh risks, rewards of Justin Fields running the ball

Fields’ innate sense for running with the football — whether on planned runs or scrambles — led to his breakthrough game against the 49ers. 

Justin Fields runs against the 49ers.
Justin Fields runs against the 49ers.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Justin Fields rolled left, kicked out his left leg to even his balance and threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James against the 49ers, he looked like a shortstop turning a double play.

There’s a reason for that: Fields was a star shortstop growing up. Not that the rookie could describe the full-speed contortion or why he used his leg as a ballast.

“I just kinda go out there and do it,” he said. “I’m just going to feel how my body moves. . . . I just kinda get a feel for it and get that rhythm for it.”

Fields’ innate sense for running with the football — whether on planned runs or scrambles — led to nothing short of a breakthrough last week.

He went 4-for-4 for 40 yards on planned rollouts, including the touchdown pass. All but 14 of his career-high 103 rushing yards were improvised on scrambles, including his 22-yard highlight-reel touchdown run that, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, had a 2.3% chance of scoring. On a different run — a 15-yard scramble in the third quarter — Fields ran 20.03 mph for the third time this season, better than any NFL quarterback.

When he ran, Fields was breathtaking. But the Bears have to hold their collective breath, too.

Every time Fields runs, planned or not, he’s taking a risk. The stakes couldn’t be higher: The only thing worse than a 3-5 season is having to play the rest of it with a promising rookie quarterback on injured reserve.

If Fields runs as frequently Monday night against the Steelers as he did against the 49ers, the Bears will be clear-eyed about what could go right — and wrong.

“We just have to keep finding that balance of how much you want your NFL quarterback to get hit,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “Because it’s rare that they don’t get hit at some point in the passing game. . . . So then when you choose to give him some run options, you just take that chance.

“So we have to balance that. And some of that is dictated by the defense.”

When the Bears ran read-option concepts — when Fields could hand the ball off or fake a handoff and keep it, depending on how hard the defensive end crashed down — the 49ers chose to crash. The Bears were surprised. Previous opponents had kept Fields honest.

The Steelers will have a similar choice to make. David Montgomery figures to return from a sprained left knee — the Bears waived wide receiver Breshad Perriman to create a roster spot Sunday — and be the Bears’ lead running back. He’ll make the Steelers’ decision even more complicated.

“Quarterback mobility is a component of play — something that you don’t deal with every week, something that we better be ready to deal with this week,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Last week was [Fields’] first 100-yard game. I imagine he’s gaining a sense of comfort of when to utilize those skills and when it’s most appropriate and how to take advantage of his talents with each passing week. That has our attention.”

And the attention of Fields’ own teammates.

“He can make every throw — and, obviously, his legs,” Bears safety Tashaun Gipson said. “I think that you can’t really put him in a box, man. Because he can be a running quarterback or he can dice you up with his arm. That’s the beautiful part of having a quarterback like that. Defenses can never get comfortable. . . . It’s exciting to watch from the sideline. You see his growth each week. He’s just comfortable. He’s getting more and more comfortable. You can see it on the practice field. You can just see it, man.”