Protecting Justin Fields is Job 1 for Bears
Fields survived six sacks against the Eagles on Sunday. But with the finish line to a rebuilding season in sight, the Bears have to make sure Fields is standing at the end. “That’s the franchise quarterback,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “This is always a big issue.”
Even at 3-11 with no playoff hopes, the Bears still have some goals in the final three games of the season. But one goal should stand at the top of the list:
Protect your quarterback.
Even if Justin Fields doesn’t finish a game-winning drive or throw for more than 200 yards against the Bills, Lions or Vikings, at this point, there’s only one thing that can make the arrow point down heading into the 2023 offseason — an injury to Fields that impacts his offseason or beyond.
It’s a legitimate concern after Fields was sacked six times in a 25-20 loss to the Eagles on Sunday. The Bears have allowed 48 sacks this season and are 32nd in sacks allowed per pass play.
“I’m always concerned about Fields,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said. “That’s the franchise quarterback, this is always a big issue. So we’re always looking to protect him and do a better job of that. And certainly we need to do a better job than we did yesterday.”
Sunday’s game was close to a worst-case scenario for the Bears. The Eagles have the best defensive front in the NFL and came in with a league-leading 49 sacks. The Bears’ offensive line, which has been in flux all season, suffered another blow when guard Teven Jenkins was carried off on a cart with a neck injury four plays into the game.
Not only that, but the Bears inserted Alex Leatherwood at right tackle in a rotation with veteran Riley Reiff. So for most of the game, the Bears had players at right guard and tackle — Michael Schofield and Leatherwood — who never had played together.
Leatherwood was beaten by linebacker Haason Reddick for a sack and allowed three other pressures in 10 pass-blocking snaps. He did not play in the second half.
“He has some good moments going against some good pass rushers,” Eberflus said. “So I think
he learned some, as well. He had some adversity. That is always going to happen when you play some good rushers. He just has to build upon that and learn from that experience.”
It remains to be seen if that will happen. Eberflus would not commit to continuing Leatherwood’s audition Saturday against the Bills. While Leatherwood, a 2021 first-round draft pick of the Raiders, is a potential starter in 2023, it might not be worth the risk to see any more. That’s one reason why the Bears acquired Reiff in the first place — he’s a proven veteran with enough experience to hold his own.
“We’ll see what happens as we go,” Eberflus said.
Jenkins’ status is in doubt after the injury, and it’s likely Schofield will start against the Bills. That at least would give the Bears two veterans on the right side of the line in Reiff and Schofield.
The Bears also won’t be facing the Eagles again. The Bills also have one of the NFL’s best defenses — second in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed — but they’re 13th in sacks per pass play. The Lions are 26th in sacks per play, and the Vikings are 22nd.
Fields has been pretty sturdy this season, and he recovers quickly. He did not play against the Jets because of a separated shoulder but returned the next week against the Packers.
Fields missed one snap against the Eagles when he cramped up before a key third-and-14 in the fourth quarter. Nathan Peterman replaced him and threw an incompletion intended for Nsimba Webster.
“Yeah, that was a little stressful,” Eberflus said.
And that was just one play. Fields said he’ll do a better job of hydrating before games to avoid that. But Fields taking care of himself is one issue. The Bears taking care of Fields is a much bigger one.