Bears film study: Justin Fields’ incredible running — and room to grow in passing
He’s the best running quarterback in the NFL. Next: Make some strides as a passer. He was good at both against the Eagles, but there were a few plays when he could’ve done more.
It took just 13 games for Justin Fields to break the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the season, and he now needs to average 69 yards per game over the final three weeks to set the single-season record (1,206) for a quarterback. It’s very doable, considering that he is averaging 76.9 for the season and 100.8 over his last eight games.
He has established himself as the best running quarterback in the NFL, which is a tremendous accomplishment in his development and incredibly promising for the Bears during their rebuild.
But Fields often downplays that aspect of his game and did so again after running all over the field in the loss to the Eagles, saying he doesn’t intend to be a 1,000-yard rusher regularly.
Being a runner doesn’t mean he can’t also be a passer. Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts have established ideal balances that make them extraordinarily challenging to defend.
Fields has half of that nailed down, and he’s well on his way as a passer. He has been efficient, though far from prolific. The more yards he can get by throwing, the fewer are needed on the ground, and that would enable him to find the right mix like Jackson.
That endeavor will be made easier if the Bears can fortify their offensive line and bolster their pass-catching crew.
There was a third-and-10 late in the first quarter, for example, when the Eagles got immediate pressure with just four pass rushers, had a spy waiting for Fields if he took off running and covered all of his receivers completely. What’s he supposed to do with that?
Nonetheless, Fields looked good overall as a thrower and runner Sunday, completing 14 of 21 passes for 152 yards with two touchdowns for a 119.5 passer rating and running for 95 yards on 15 carries. Here’s a look at what he did well and what needs improvement:
Impossible escapes as a runner
Great quarterbacks are magicians. They can turn any disaster into a success. Whether that’s Patrick Mahomes treating third-and-seven like it’s backyard football or Justin Herbert seemingly never being out of a game, it’s an art.
Fields has that potential with his legs. He has gotten 23% of his yardage after contact, and it has become routine to see him turn losses into gains. He bailed the Bears out of a second-and-27 from the Eagles’ 48-yard line midway through the second quarter by doing that. It was his best play of the game.
Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick, one of the NFL’s top rushers, beat right tackle Alex Leatherwood off the line and dove at Fields’ feet at the Bears’ 44-yard line. That would’ve been an eight-yard loss, but Fields sidestepped it. Reddick sprung up and wrapped his arm around Fields’ neck at the Bears’ 46 and was on the brink of sacking him, but Fields ducked out of it, changed direction from right to left and was gone for a 39-yard run.
Instead of third-and-33, it was first-and-goal at the 9. Magic.
Fields’ escape of Reddick was so hard to believe that him shaking a few defenders a moment later was barely noticed. But when Eagles cornerback Darius Slay and linebacker T.J. Edwards closed in on him at the 33-yard line, Fields dodged both and left Edwards flailing as he briefly got one hand on him. Fields made it 29 yards on his own and got another 10 thanks in large part to good blocking by wide receivers Byron Pringle and Velus Jones.
Running back David Montgomery scored on the next play to put the Bears up 6-3. Not bad for a possession that seemed destined to end in a punt before Fields’ run.
Mixed bag as a passer
Fields’ completion percentage, yards per pass and passer rating were all good, but few quarterbacks win with just 152 yards passing. He’s averaging 157.5 this season, barely above what he did as a rookie, and that just isn’t good enough.
Take Jackson, for example. When he set the quarterback rushing record with 1,206 yards in 2019, he also averaged 208.5 yards passing. That’s overwhelming. That’s why he won MVP. Over his four seasons as a full-time starter, he has averaged 203.9 yards passing and 69.3 rushing, and the Ravens have gone 39-15 in his starts.
The two ways for Fields to step up his passing is to recognize downfield opportunities faster and get better in obvious passing situations — the most difficult predicament for all quarterbacks — to extend drives. The Bears have run the 10th-fewest plays this season. More plays would mean more opportunities.
It’s on Bears general manager Ryan Poles to facilitate that with better personnel around Fields.
The good? Fields succeeded on both fronts on his 35-yard touchdown pass to Byron Pringle in the fourth quarter and his 20-yard strike over the middle to Equanimeous St. Brown on third-and-10 in the first.
On the Pringle touchdown, Fields looked past shallower options in running back Darrynton Evans and receiver Dante Pettis to take advantage of a blown coverage and hit Pringle all alone near the end zone. On the third-down play, he hit St. Brown perfectly in stride so he could get another eight yards after the catch.
The bad? While at first it looked like a simple drop when Pettis didn’t catch Fields’ fourth-and-three throw in the flat early in the first quarter, which cost the Bears a scoring chance, the throw was significantly behind Pettis. That made it a tough catch and allowed cornerback Avonte Maddox to get back into the play. That hurt.
Another play Fields can fix happened late in the first quarter when he scrambled for seven yards.
(Eagles defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh clearly hit Fields unnecessarily on his slide, by the way.) There’s nothing wrong with a seven-yard gain on first down, of course, but he could’ve hit Montgomery for at least 10 if he’d reacted quicker.
Those are two relatively forgettable plays, but they would’ve made a significant difference. If he starts making those, it’ll be a big boost to the Bears’ offense.