Bears QB Justin Fields is winning mind games amid ‘commotion’ in backfield
Remember when Fields got sacked nine times in his starting debut last season? It’s hard to imagine that ever happening again.
Justin Fields’ running prowess is the talk of the NFL, and most of that conversation is about the unparalleled speed he brings as the Bears’ quarterback.
He’s outrunning cornerbacks such as the Lions’ Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 overall pick in 2020, who surely thought his 4.4 speed would be sufficient for any situation. Fields has clocked the fastest speed of any quarterback this season at 21.2 mph and has a couple of 60-yard touchdown runs.
But his one-yard score against the Lions last week might have been his most impressive play. Not only does Fields have pure speed that scares every defense, but his elusiveness is rivaled only by Ravens star quarterback Lamar Jackson.
In actuality, Fields ran 34 yards for that touchdown. When he dropped back, two defenders were closing within three yards and a third ran in as he rolled left, then cut back to the right. One lunged and actually had both arms wrapped around Fields’ legs for a moment, nearly pulling him to the ground for an eight-yard sack, but Fields turned hard to the left and shook him.
Even then, he still had a defender in pursuit behind him and another approaching ahead. That’s when the speed kicked in. Fields hit the gas, survived two defenders hitting him at the goal line and plowed into the end zone.
It’s not normal.
Fields has still been sacked 36 times, more than anyone else in the NFL, but things look much different than they did last year in his starting debut as a rookie, when the Browns flattened him nine times.
It helps that he’s no longer being told to win from the pocket and is now in an offense that allows him to play freely. But he also has become more savvy amid the chaos that transpires in the small, crowded space of the backfield. Although he has natural athleticism, there’s also a mental component to being an elite escape artist.
“Your eyes are always downfield, so you’re learning to develop a feel for the tempo of the rush,” Bears quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said. “It just comes down to the functional intelligence to react in that moment.”
And there’s a lot to decipher in a very short time. Bears defensive end Trevis Gipson described that challenge, which he’ll face Sunday against Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, as “a lot of commotion.” Whoever processes the frenzy first usually wins those battles. Defenders are often within arm’s reach of Fields, but one quick step is all he needs to escape between the guard and tackle.
“Honestly, it’s pretty challenging,” Gipson said. “When you’ve got a mobile quarterback that’s moving around, you’re hoping your teammates can keep him boxed in and you all can play off each other. You hope there’s no gaps for escaping.”
Asked which quarterback has been the most problematic for him in that regard, Gipson said Fields. Pressed to pick someone he has actually faced in a game, he said there really isn’t anyone on Fields’ level.
Again, Fields’ mind is a big part of that. Bears defensive tackle Justin Jones said the goal is to make mobile quarterbacks “play with a panic,” but does Fields ever seem panicked? He looks like he’s performing a dance he knows by heart.
“You think you have him . . . and he just outruns [you],” Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker said. “He gets out of a sack that’s clearly a sack.”
That’s invaluable as the Bears work through their ongoing renovations to the offensive line. Fields has faced pressure on 28.1% of his dropbacks, third-highest in the NFL, but has been sacked on fewer than half of those plays. He’s turning nothing into something.