Bears QB Justin Fields throws 3 touchdown passes in 1st half to beat Browns 21-20
Fields played well despite inconsistent blocking and exited with his strongest performance of the preseason.
CLEVELAND — If the Bears’ offense is going to do anything this season, quarterback Justin Fields must rise above his imperfect circumstances.
For the first time this preseason, he showed he can do that.
The Bears were looking for a signal from Fields that he’s ready for the season, which opens in two weeks against the 49ers, and he sent it with three touchdown drives in a 21-20 victory against the Browns on Saturday in the preseason finale.
The Bears got off to a rocky start, and concerns about the offensive line persisted, but Fields completed 14 of 16 passes for 156 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers for a 146.9 passer rating. He left shortly before halftime with a 21-3 lead.
“Definitely a turning point,” Fields said. “We can just build on this and go into next week and get better and prepare for San Fran in two weeks.”
It was by far his most extensive and impressive work of the preseason, though it’s worth noting that the Browns held out six defensive starters.
Pretty much everything that everyone frets about for the Bears flared up on Fields’ second possession, but he pushed through it to lead an 80-yard drive that he stamped with a TD on a sharp 22-yard throw to tight end Ryan Griffin.
The pressure was constant, Griffin negated a 24-yard run by David Montgomery with a hold and Fields took a hard shot from linebacker Jacob Phillips while sliding at the end of a nine-yard scramble. But he made all the right plays to keep the offense moving.
Big gains are nice, and he had several, but it was equally important that Fields was sharp on the more modest, basic plays that are essential to a legitimate offense.
“That’s one of the parts he’s getting better at,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “That’s really about his footwork. We’ve been working on the timing of his feet with his throws.”
On a first-and-20 near midfield, he hit Dante Pettis on a quick pass for 14 yards that got the drive back on track. Two plays later, with pressure coming from his left against tackle Braxton Jones and guard Cody Whitehair, Fields held his footing in the pocket and hit Griffin in the end zone as two defenders arrived late.
He followed with a five-play, 52-yard series ending on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Pettis near the left sideline of the end zone. All three of Fields’ scoring drives began in Bears territory and took no longer than 4:01.
“This was a game-like experience that he needed to have,” Eberflus said. “And he took a big step forward for him and for our team. Just getting comfortable, operating the offense, doing his thing — I thought he did that.”
Even amid the offensive line’s struggles, the overall scheme looked functional. That’s a step forward from where the Bears left off last season under Matt Nagy, who put Fields in a terrible spot when he made his starting debut in Cleveland last season.
Receivers and running backs often had plenty of space to maneuver on short passes, and tight end Cole Kmet was so open on Fields’ third touchdown pass that he almost came to a complete stop as he watched the ball sail to him in the end zone.
A big part of that play working so well was Fields drawing the defensive players in by rolling to his right, then sending the ball over their heads to Kmet. That’s an advantage offensive coordinator Luke Getsy intends to make frequent use of this season.
Still, the offensive line could undercut what Fields seems to have going for him. All the work he put in to fix his footwork and Getsy’s effort to maximize his skills in a tailored offense won’t matter if he never has time. And considering the protection was that shaky on a night when the Browns rested pass rushers Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, that could be a real pitfall.
Fields can’t insist that everything be perfect for him to thrive.
“It’s never gonna be perfect,” Eberflus said. “When a play breaks down, you’ve gotta figure it out.”
On the Bears’ opening possession, Montgomery got stopped for a loss running behind right tackle Larry Borom, then barely made it back to the line of scrimmage behind right guard Teven Jenkins. Defensive end Alex Wright ripped through both of them to knock Fields down as he threw incomplete on third-and-11.
The offense could look like that, too.
General manager Ryan Poles, who has expertise in line play, has maintained that he had adequately overhauled the unit despite no splashy free-agent acquisitions or high draft picks. And while the line is playing without center Lucas Patrick as he recovers from a broken thumb, his anticipated return for the opener won’t fix everything.
There’s nothing more pivotal for the Bears this year than deciding with certainty whether Fields can consistently deliver regardless of his surroundings. It’s on him to prove he can navigate the various dangers headed his way.