SEATTLE — Someone wake Matt Nagy: This play is what the Justin Fields offense is supposed to look like.
On second-and-six from the Seahawks’ 40-yard line Thursday night, Fields crept under center, took the snap and faked a handoff to running back Khalil Herbert. He used his sprinter’s speed to bootleg left, where the Bears’ best player was open in the left flat. Darnell Mooney had scooted from right to left along the line of scrimmage, using his 5-11 frame to hide behind towering linemen.
The team’s second-best pass catcher, though, was more open. Tight end Cole Kmet, playing his first preseason game, had lined up next to the right tackle and ran an over route just past the Seahawks’ wall of linebackers. He was at the 28-yard line when Fields, who had no rushers within three yards of him, rifled a pass from the 48. Kmet caught the pass, ran for eight more yards, jumped up and unleashed a primal screen.
“He’s my second read on that and he was open,” Fields said. “So I just threw him the ball.”
Fields’ lone possession in the Bears’ 27-11 victory at Lumen Stadium wasn’t electric. The Bears moved 52 yards on 10 plays, aided by a Seahawks offside penalty on fourth down, and kicked a 35-yard field goal. Fields went 5-for-7 for 39 yards and an 84.8 passer rating and had one yard on one carry. But he led his team to points, something he couldn’t say in his debut five days earlier.
It was enough to wonder whether, despite coach Matt Eberflus’ vow to play his starters frequently this preseason, Fields will sit the finale Aug. 27 in Cleveland. If the Bears are to have even a modicum of success this season — and that might be it — Fields needs to be healthy.
No one writes sonnets about 19-yard gains against a team as bad as the Seahawks, but the Bears’ longest play of Fields’ lone drive was important for what it was — a quarterback using his athleticism to roll left, turn his shoulders and choose between his two best pass-catching options — and what it wasn’t.
It was proof of concept — and a different concept than the previous week, when the Bears’ two best plays were deep balls Fields flung to outside receivers. It’s dangerous to project grand truths out of preseason work, but this was progress by Fields and his play-caller, both of whom vowed they’d make steady gains as the preseason wore on.
Luke Getsy didn’t line up five receivers and wish Fields good luck, the way Nagy did against the Browns. Instead, the new offensive coordinator schemed open intermediate routes for his quarterback, as if to say: We know Fields can scramble and throw deep, but what about everything else?
Eberflus stressed that Fields’ performance was a small sample size, but that he considered the performance progress. Eberflus said Fields is “improving every single day” — in practices and games.
“He does a really good job with the movement passes, the play-actions, in pocket, out of pocket, and to be able to deliver the ball,” Eberflus said. “We’re excited about that.”
Fields started the possession with a tight-end screen to Kmet that went for 12 yards and threw a six-yard bubble screen to Mooney. Had the Bears completed two screens on the same drive in 2021, confetti would’ve streamed down at midfield.
Playing one quarter plus three plays Saturday, Fields threw one pass to a projected starter. On Thursday, the two pass catchers who spent the most time with Fields this offseason — Mooney and Kmet — caught the three longest passes of the quarterback’s possession.
Entering his third season, Kmet finally might live up to the hype by catching play-action passes alone. Mooney was Fields’ favorite receiver last year, but Kmet made it close at the end of the year. In two of the last three games that Fields started and finished, Kmet was the Bears’ leading receiver in catches and yards. With the Bears’ wide receivers room one of the thinnest in the NFL, Fields needs his tight end.
“He definitely brings another weapon to our offense, for sure,” Fields said. “I was just glad to see him out there.”
Kmet will have to block, too.
The Bears rested veterans Riley Reiff and Michael Schofield, leaving swing tackle Larry Borom to start at right tackle and 2021 second-round pick Teven Jenkins — who hadn’t played the position in a practice until Monday — at right guard.
Fields wasn’t sacked, for a change. Not counting the 2021 season opener in which he was used as a gadget player, Fields has played 16 preseason and regular-season games. Before this game, he had been sacked in all but one of them.
The Bears struggled to block for Fields nonetheless, allowing pressure on half of his drop-backs.
On the second play of the game, Herbert failed to pick up linebacker Cody Barton, who blitzed up the middle. Fields threw the ball away. On third-and-two, the Seahawks collapsed the pocket with a blitz, forcing Fields to cut his losses and lean forward for a yard. After the offside call, Seahawks defensive lineman Poona Ford shoved his way through Jenkins, forcing Fields to run right and dump the ball off to Herbert.
As long as their offensive line profiles as one of the league’s worst, the Bears need to create ways to keep Fields clean. That means screens, bootlegs and draws.
If the Bears’ blockers can’t slow down their opponents, maybe the doubt created in edge rushers by those calls will.
That’s the power of play-action. And screens. And letting Fields be more than just a deep-throwing, scrambling quarterback.