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Can the Bears protect Justin Fields’ ribs against the Packers?

It’s Fields’ job — and that of his coaches — to not expose him to any unnecessary hits. That’s a challenge every Sunday, but the stakes are raised this week. Fields’ ability to take the field the rest of the season might be the last thing keeping the Bears relevant.

Baltimore Ravens v Chicago Bears
Bears quarterback Justin Fields is tackled last month.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Bears offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was working for a Super Bowl-winning coach years ago when he kept insisting on a specific pass play. The coach overruled him and later explained why: Even though the play was set up to work, he couldn’t justify exposing his quarterback to a seven-step drop and the threat of injury behind a leaky line. He prioritized his quarterback’s health over one — likely successful — play.

Lazor told the story when asked if he had a personal responsibility to protect rookie Justin Fields’ ribs Sunday night against the Packers.

“I learned a valuable lesson from that,” he said Thursday. “I think it’s part of all those factors that go into calling the game. Hey, we want explosive [plays] — can we protect it right now? And then obviously [Fields’] ability to be a runner is another added risk to that.’’

Fields has been cleared to start at Lambeau Field after cracking three ribs against the Ravens — but acknowledged that he’ll be hurting.

“The pain’s just not unbearable,” Fields said.

It’s his job — and that of his coaches — to make sure he can avoid any unnecessary hits. That’s a challenge every Sunday, but the stakes are raised this week. Fields’ ability to take the field the rest of the season might be the last thing keeping the Bears relevant.

“You’ve got to take that responsibility of protecting the quarterback,” Lazor said. “So do we have a heightened awareness because he’s coming off an injury? I think that’s fair.”

Lazor said he doesn’t need to remind Fields to protect himself — the pain will probably handle that for him.

“He probably understands better than I do how it feels,” he said.

All too well. On Jan. 1, Fields hurt his ribs and hip when he was hit — illegally — by Clemson linebacker James Skalski in a national championship semifinal game. He missed only one play but was hampered the rest of that game and during the championship.

“I think January was way worse, by far,” Fields said this week. “It’s the same thing pretty much. Not really that much of a difference — just not as much pain.”

How much was Fields in pain in January? He said it took him “probably four or five weeks” to feel back to normal — and that was when the season had ended and he no longer was practicing or playing football.

“I just didn’t do anything to let it fully heal,” he said. “But, again, that was way worse.”

That won’t make getting tackled in the cold feel any better Sunday. Fields figures to wear a flak jacket to protect his ribs.

“I’m going to have to be smart this game with not taking as many hits as I usually do,” he said. “So I’m going to be smart about that and cognizant about that, for sure.”

Fields has said that before, with mixed results. His insistence on trying to spin around defenders — and getting hit in the same rib area — made those inside Halas Hall cringe. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said the Bears talk “frequently” to Fields about sliding properly to avoid getting tackled. Even though he’s a former baseball player, Fields’ slides have looked awkward at times.

“Whenever you have a quarterback with Justin’s running style, I think you always have cause for concern for the amount of hits that player has taken,” he said. “If you don’t, then I don’t think that’s right.”

Fields’ coaches will try to protect him with the playbook. David Montgomery’s return to practice bodes well for the Bears relying on their running game. Lazor’s pass selection will take Fields’ health into play, too, and might not give him the option of running as often.

But Fields has to protect himself, too.

“You’ve gotta be careful the times you play with that reckless abandon against a defense,” DeFilippo said.