5 Bears Takeaways: More signs of growth from Justin Fields
It’s all just so painfully familiar for the Bears, both in context to their recent history with the rival Packers and the challenges of this transitional season. They came up short once again, falling 28-19 on Sunday at Soldier Field.
The Bears squandered command of an early lead to the Packers, with reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers offering perhaps a final salute to Soldier Field wearing a gold helmet. Chicago dropped its sixth straight game and fell to 3-10.
Here are the five takeaways from Soldier Field:
1. A more complete performance from Fields
As he broke free from the Packers’ defense and ran to the end zone for another electrifying touchdown, Bears quarterback Justin Fields reached a maximum speed of 20.15 miles per hour, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
For his part, Fields wouldn’t have believed it.
“I felt like I was moving kind of slow,” Fields said. “I just felt like I was moving slower than my top speed.”
“I got to do some extra sprints or something.”
Sunday produced the latest sensational flash play in a season full of them. But the highlight reels won’t reflect the important growth on display for Fields.
Fields played his most balanced and complete performance of his second season, bringing the Bears success both in the running and passing game. He finished 20-of-25 for 254 yards and 2 interceptions (more on those to come), adding 71 rushing yards and a score on the ground.
In his first game back following a left shoulder injury, Fields played a more precise game from the pocket and used his dual threat to create opportunities. Rather than relying on his running talents, Fields turned scrambles from the pockets into openings downfield. The Bears’ offense was multi-dimensional because of how Fields approached this game.
“When you got his legs like that and his ability to escape the pocket and make plays downfield, that’s pretty special,” Bears tight end Cole Kmet said. “It’s good for us. You could tell their rushers were a little more patient on the edge today, so a guy like Justin kind of softens those guys up a little bit trying to keep him in the pocket and not breaking contain on him. When you’re able to do that, you’re able to get guys downfield, get them open, and Justin was able to do some things with his arm today as well.”
Fields’ 254 passing yards marked the most he has thrown for in 2022 and the second-highest mark of his young career. The success through the air was the product of Fields playing with increased confidence in his playmaking abilities and the structure of this scheme.
Though it came in a losing effort, Fields revealed the blueprint moving forward for how the Bears can find success on offense through his dynamic talents. It’s about keeping a defense off balance. Fields’ rushing threat has been well established this season, but now teams know to respect the throwing abilities.
“I think this was one of my best games passing-wise,” Fields said. “Of course, the stats are going to show that. I felt really comfortable out there in the passing game. Just got to keep improving, keep getting better.”
Bears head coach Matt Eberflus pointed to a third-and-10 play in the third quarter as one of his favorites from Sunday. Fields stepped up in the pocket and drew a defender off Kmet, creating an opening along the sideline for a 24-yard strike.
In the fourth quarter, Fields similarly bought an opportunity by extending the play to his left and found wide receiver N’Keal Harry with space on a one-on-one down the sideline. He dropped a dime to Harry, who made a terrific catch for a 49-yard completion.
“Justin did a really good job getting those shots,” Eberflus said.
Fields’ day of continued growth did include a pair of interceptions in the fourth quarter, the end result of the Bears’ final drives on offense. With 2:57 remaining in regulation, Fields threw what Eberflus called a “trust throw” to wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on a dig route. St. Brown didn’t break with intent on the football, something his former Packers teammate Jaire Alexander anticipated as he jumped the route.
This seemed to be an interception more on St. Brown that it was Fields.
“You just like to see the receiver come back to the ball,” Fields said. ‘We always just try to tell the receivers that those DBs, they want that pick each and every time, so they’re going to attack that ball. that’s just a timing throw, anticipated throw, and I think (Alexander) just made a good play on that.”
The second interception for Fields came with 51 seconds remaining in the game as he tried to force a ball to wide receiver Dante Pettis with the Bears hoping to extend the game down nine points.
Fields’ performance Sunday was a showcase of growth for the future, the type of effort that the Bears hope to see from him in leading towards 2023. Despite him suffering a left shoulder injury Nov. 20 at Atlanta, Fields was medically cleared to play and his team believes each game can be the catalyst for growth.
As this season has progressed, despite the difficulties surrounding the Bears, Fields has shown greater comfort while developing into a more complete dual-threat quarterback. He is finding the rising star from within.
Though this effort came in another loss, Fields inspired more hope for the Bears’ future.
2. Pride for the next men up
Bears rookie safety Elijah Hicks probably wasn’t projected to start as a rookie when he was selected in the seventh round of April’s NFL Draft. If anything, Chicago’s scouting brass saw him as a developmental player who could make contributions on special teams.
There was Hicks on Sunday starting against Rodgers, who loves to take advantage of rookies on defense. Like many players on this makeshift Bears defense – without Eddie Jackson, Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn and the key players who lined up to start this season – Hicks was simply trying to hold his own.
“I’m so proud of the dudes I was out there playing with,” Hicks said. “We worked so hard during the week and we were doing extra meetings together. You could see that on the field, seeing how it helped us and benefited us.
“Other than those plays, it was like we were on top of everything. They didn’t do nothing that we weren’t ready for. We were on it. That’s why it hurts. But I’m so thankful to be with this team, this defense, these guys in the secondary.”
Rodgers has made a Hall of Fame career out of extending plays in the pocket and thriving from there, and that’s once again how he found success against the Bears.
The Bears simply do not have the talent up front to generate pressure on Rodgers, failing to record a single sack or hurry on Sunday. And Chicago’s secondary was missing four of its five Week 1 starters, playing with top cornerback Jaylon Johnson, a seventh-round rookie in Hicks and just about anyone who was healthy and able to take the field.
The Bears held Rodgers in check on Sunday as he went 18-of-31 for 182 yards and a touchdown. But he came up with the winning plays, leading the Packers back from down 16-3 in the second quarter to take over this game.
A Bears defense that was undermanned gave its best effort and it wasn’t enough.
“Very proud,” Bears safety DeAndre Houston-Carson said. “And not surprised whatsoever. The way that we prepared this week, the way that we talked and communicated and the way everybody was playing for each other, I’m not surprised.”
3. Claypool comes out unscathed
The Bears have endured their share of misfortune on the injury front. It seems they avoided a catastrophe Sunday.
Bears wide receiver Chase Claypool had his right leg rolled up while hauling in a 17-yard reception during the second quarter, fumbling the football as his leg bent awkwardly. What appeared to be a potentially serious injury fortunately was not, as he returned for the second half.
Acquired by the Bears in an early November deal, Claypool represents a key building block for Fields and this offense. He had 5 receptions for 28 yards in this game, though that workload was limited while he worked back to the field for the third quarter.
The Bears have lost Jackson (Lisfranc injury), top wide receiver Darnell Mooney (ankle), center Lucas Patrick (toe), running back Khalil Herbert (hip) and more to injured reserve. They can breathe a sigh of relief that Claypool appears to be fine.
4. Leatherwood’s first chance
As the Bears work to develop their young roster for the future, they’ve also been willing to take flyers on players passed along by other teams. A primary example of that philosophy is second-year tackle Alex Leatherwood, who got his first chance on Chicago’s offensive line.
A first-round pick to the Raiders in 2021, Leatherwood quickly fell out of favor with the new regime in Las Vegas and was surprisingly released prior to the regular season. The Bears claimed him off waivers and have worked to help him develop behind the scenes.
Leatherwood worked a rotation at right tackle with Riley Reiff. Ultimately, he could take over that starting spot – perhaps even for the final four games of this season.
“Any time you start with a new team, whether you get traded or get cut, whatever that is, you kind of need a complete reset,” Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan said last week. “His situation, he didn’t have a lot of time because it’s during the season.
“But he’s just done a good job kind of learning our vocabulary, our plays, techniques, learning the guys next to him that he’s working with. But he’s done a good job.”
5. Off to the bye
Four games remain for the Bears this season, but first comes their bye week.
The Bears will enjoy their week off before returning to host the Eagles (11-1) and Bills (9-3) at Soldier Field. They close out the season with the Lions (5-7) in Detroit and then the Vikings (10-2) in the season finale.
Eberflus hopes to keep the Bears focused on working and developing with purpose in these remaining games, even as the losses have stacked up.
“It’s the message that’s going to be if we win, lose or draw,” Eberflus said. “Every single week I’m going to tell them the same thing.
“Get back to work tomorrow.”