Justin Fields got better against the 49ers. There’s really no debating it.
He got rid of the ball faster. He was decisive when he pulled the ball to run. And, frankly, he carried the offense on a day when the Bears didn’t get much out of the run game.
He was the run game.
There are plenty of fires to put out at Halas Hall these days, but wherever the rest of the 2021 season goes, Fields’ development will continue to be the top priority for the future.
No, Fields wasn’t perfect in the 33-22 loss to the 49ers. I dinged him for six plays in the loss (two high throws, one poor decision, one poor read, one missed checkdown, and one other miss we’ll discuss shortly). He had twice as many positive plays, however, including three I put in the “elite” category. Even on the missed checkdown, he picked up positive yards with his legs.
“I thought that was by far his best game in terms of his footwork, his rhythm and he got the ball out on time,” Bears quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said. “That was our best game (Sunday), by far.”
Bears head coach Matt Nagy highlighted two “big-time NFL throws” from the game — and neither of them were my favorite play. We’ll take a look at all three in this week’s film study:
The Mailbox Throw
Fields developed chemistry with tight end Jesse James in the preseason and it showed on Sunday. The touchdown pass to James in the second quarter had a high level of difficulty as Fields ran against the grain to his left. From the press box, I didn’t even think he had a window to get the ball to James.
“Awesome. Awesome. I mean that’s a mailbox throw,” DeFilippo said, meaning Fields fit the ball into a space the size of a mailbox.
If you don’t remember, the Bears’ last quarterback had a little bit of an issue throwing to his left, but Fields had a couple of throws Sunday in which he delivered the ball with pinpoint accuracy as he was on the run to his left.
“Justin came out on the naked and to flip your hips and have the accuracy to be able to put it literally an inch outside the defender’s hands to the only place Jesse could catch the football. Special. You love seeing it,” Nagy said. “I was definitely a fan when that play happened and it got pretty loud.”
Do it again
Fields had another impressive throw to James later in the game on a similar boot concept, but with James coming farther across the field from the other side of the formation.
“We’ve identified we need to keep improving on throwing to our left. He’s bought in and gotten better,” DeFilippo said. “Whenever you can rollout both ways, it’s an added strength of our offense for sure.”
The key is creating balance as you unload the football because the quarterback’s feet are rarely going to be set on throws moving to the left. The smoothness on the second throw to James is very impressive, but the athleticism on the touchdown throw is also noticeable.
“Go back and watch the tape. Go back and watch it,” DeFilippo said. “Whenever you’re throwing on the run to balance yourself out, you have some natural leg kick, so watch his left leg. Watch his leg in the air. That has a tendency to balance you out when you’re on the run.”
Quick game conversion
As impressive as the throws to James were, another huge play was the 3rd-and-13 conversion to Marquise Goodwin early in the third quarter. Goodwin ran a great route, but it was not an easy throw.
For everyone clamoring for more slants and routes to the middle of the field, this play is for you. In a third-and-long situation, the Bears went to the quick game to counter the pressure they correctly anticipated, but that doesn’t allow for deep developing routes. This had to be a quick catch-and-run.
“Anytime you throw a quick game like that, you’re gonna have some hands in your face and you have to find lanes, so I thought that was a really nice play,” DeFilippo said.
With only a three-step drop, there’s less space to work with in the pocket, but Fields countered that with his timing and accuracy to get the ball to Goodwin.
Fields also ran for 103 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries, almost all of which were scrambles. He was much more decisive when he took off with the ball and that allowed him to pick up more yards. The 22-yard touchdown scramble on 4th-and-1, of course, was just a special play from a special player, but DeFilippo pointed out that the Bears were actually lined up wrong before the play and Fields managed to correct the formation before the snap.
Those criticizing Fields for three drives that stalled out in field goals weren’t really paying attention on two of them. One stalled out because of three penalties on his offensive line. Another stalled out on a bad swing pass that was called on 3rd-and-6 (perhaps Fields will be able to check out of that in the future).
The one that Fields can accept some of the blame was the missed third down connection to Cole Kmet in the end zone. I originally didn’t ding Fields for that play because I thought Kmet could have been more physical and created more separation. DeFilippo acknowledged that as truth, but also said Fields’ pass was too hot and could have been put more on Kmet’s body instead of to the outside.
Those are the opportunities Fields has to convert moving forward, but he also needs help from his teammates (like James making the tough touchdown catch on the “mailbox” throw).