5 Takeaways: A setback for Justin Fields accompanies tough loss in Atlanta
The Bears fell 27-24 to the Falcons, dropping their fourth straight game and suffering a costly loss in the process. Bears quarterback Justin Fields appeared to re-injure his left shoulder on the final drive and now the concern turns to his health moving forward.
Trailing by three points with 1:47 remaining, Fields was struck near the left shoulder on a designed run and the hopes of a comeback drive came to a halt. Two plays later, he threw an interception that allowed the Falcons to secure their victory over the Bears.
Here are five takeaways from the Bears’ loss in Atlanta.
1. Setback for Fields
It all seemed to be setting up with the ideal scenario for Fields and the Bears, who had 1:47 remaining, all three timeouts in hand and the chance for a comeback victory. Instead, it went horribly wrong.
Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy drew up a perplexing call on the first play of this final series, a designed quarterback sweep to the left side that saw Fields take a shot. He was in clear pain along the sidelines while grabbing towards his left shoulder.
Fields dealt with an injury to his left shoulder during the Bears’ loss to the Commanders on Oct. 13 at Soldier Field, recovering over the span of a mini-bye break between games. But there’s concern after this latest injury to his left shoulder, which may require a looming absence.
This foundational season for the Bears is all about the development of the 23-year-old Fields, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He had showcased tremendous strides in his development during this second season and was inspiring confidence for the future.
While the Bears are building for their future in 2022 – the first season led by general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus – every snap Fields can take is a pivotal part of his growth. Even despite the limitations around him offensively and the lack of solutions on defense, Chicago was finding hope with the continued ascension of Fields.
More than just the flashes of greatness Fields has displayed this season, the Bears’ brass want to watch him build a body of work. They hope to see him lead this team along, guide those game-winning drives, and reveal continued improvement with his overall game.
But the Bears’ future with Fields is in some semblance of jeopardy each time he takes a shot like late in the game, defenders barreling down on him and preparing to deliver vicious hits.
As a rookie last season, Fields missed two games due to a ribs fracture, two games for an ankle injury and one with COVID-19. He has managed the left shoulder injury for part of this season, in addition to constant maintenance for his legs. On Sunday, Fields also was battling hamstring cramping. Each setback proved to be costly during an inconsistent first year for Fields.
It’s not clear whether Fields will be forced to miss games because of this injury. If X-rays are negative to his left shoulder, he will still have to manage pain tolerance in moving forward. But perhaps some time missed could benefit Fields as he continues to take a beating this season.
With Fields struggling with another injury setback, there’s concern for the stunting of growth in what has been a promising second season. And if the Bears are forced to move forward without their young quarterback, it will be hard to find true meaning so long as he’s on the sidelines.
2. Upgrades needed
With the Bears losing their fourth straight game and continuing this downward slide in 2022, Poles and his front office can start seeing their draft strategy more clearly.
The Bears are almost certain to have a top-10 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and it’s becoming more likely that they’re slotted in the top five. This team simply wasn’t strong enough to be a legitimate playoff contender, part of the plan as Poles transitioned this roster from his predecessor. There is still plenty to improve, and that much was certain Sunday.
The Bears are in dire need of improvements on the offensive line. Fields was sacked four times, constantly hurried from the pocket and struggled to conduct this offense because of the poor protection. Chicago needs to upgrade both tackle positions – either through the draft or free agency – and bring some stability to the interior positions.
Next season, the Bears could return with only two returning starters to the offensive line – left guard Cody Whitehair and right guard Teven Jenkins, who did not play Sunday due to a hip injury. Braxton Jones has been inconsistent at left tackle in his rookie season, Larry Borom was bumped out of his starting role at right tackle in favor of Riley Reiff, Lucas Patrick (toe) has had his first year in Chicago ravaged by injuries, and there’s been a steady stream of changes for the offensive line.
As the Bears have continued to alter their offensive line and seek the best starting five, they’ve seen some improvements but not enough to give Fields what he needs.
Meanwhile, the lack of influence at wide receiver stood out again as the Bears leaned on their running game and didn’t seem to put faith in the passing attack. Getsy doesn’t appear to trust Fields’ targets to make plays for him in key spots. Success through the air is often predicated by designs from Getsy.
Chase Claypool, for whom the Bears dealt a second-round pick, had just two receptions for 11 yards on Sunday. He has only five catches in three games with Chicago. Claypool is still learning the complex routes that are part of this scheme, but the Bears also have not forced opportunities his way. They haven’t tried to properly exploit Claypool’s 6-foot-4 frame as a mismatch downfield.
With the game on the line in a three-point game and the Bears needing a drive into Falcons territory, Getsy called for a pair of designed runs rather than attempting to open up the passing game. On third down, with Fields favoring his left shoulder, he was intercepted on a misfired to David Montgomery. Fields was likely in too much pain to make an accurate pass.
The Bears have started to form their core on offense around Fields. Claypool, Darnell Mooney, Khalil Herbert and Cole Kmet are certainly in those plans for 2023. But Poles must overhaul this offensive line and find reliable pieces that can benefit Fields.
Sunday’s game underscored what the Bears are missing around Fields.
3. No pressure
The Bears’ leader in sacks this season is safety Jaquan Brisker, who has three. Linebacker Roquan Smith is tied for second with 2.5 sacks, and he’s in Baltimore.
The Bears did not record a single sack on Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, who had been sacked on 10.1% of his dropbacks prior to Sunday. Rookie linebacker Jack Sanborn recorded the only official hurry on Mariota, who had clean pockets and all the time he needed.
Mariota finished 13-of-20 for 131 yards and a touchdown, also adding a rushing score. The Bears simply don’t have enough talent on their defensive front to consistency pressure the quarterback.
Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams has been forced to dial up blitzes and break from his base scheme with hopes of disrupting the quarterback each game. The lack of natural pass rush has been disappointing given the youth of this defense.
Trevis Gipson has just two sacks after recording seven last season. Rookie Dominique Robinson has only 1.5 sacks, which came during the season opener against the 49ers. He has seemingly hit a wall since. Defensive ends Al-Quadin Muhammad and Justin Jones, each signed in free agency this offseason, have combined for three sacks.
The Bears don’t stand a chance if they can’t create pressure on the quarterback.
4. Return policy
Late in the first half, the Bears claimed a 17-7 lead after a designed run for Fields turned into a four-yard touchdown. Chicago’s defense has forced stops on its previous three possessions and this game seemed to be trending well.
Falcons star Cordarrelle Patterson did what he has so often in his 10-year NFL career – he completely changed the game. Patterson returned the ensuing kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown, setting a new league record with his ninth career kickoff return touchdown.
It was a significant breakdown by the Bears’ kickoff coverage, which featured kicker Cairo Santos as the last line of defense. But Patterson is a special player and dynamic returner. Alan Williams called Patterson “respectfully, an alien” last week, while special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower noted his game-breaking abilities.
Patterson was with the Bears from 2019-’20 and underutilized on offense by former head coach Matt Nagy. He has continued a great career with the Falcons as a weapon on offense and in special teams.
The Bears were reminded of what Patterson can do on Sunday. After surrendering the return touchdown, Chicago allowed a game-tying field goal to end the first half. It was a 17-17 game at the break, but this contest had already swung to the Falcons thanks to Patterson’s latest highlight play.
5. New opportunity
Rookie Velus Jones Jr. said he would use being a healthy scratch as motivation, and he hoped to prove his value to the Bears.
“Control what you can control at this moment and grind,” Jones said last week. “Push yourself, extra work, whatever it takes. But I know my time is coming.
“You got to take everything one day at a time. What can I do now to get better? How can I help my team by creating value? That’s my main focus right now.”
Jones followed through on that, working in practice to earn his place as the Bears’ kickoff returner. After being held out the last two games, he busted a 55-yard return on his first opportunity Sunday.
It marked Jones’ only return opportunity as the Falcons seemed to avoid him on their next four kickoffs, each going for a touchback.
Jones did not see much of a role on offense. He must now show consistency in practice and lead the Bears to trusting him as more than just a gadget.
At the very least, Jones was back in action Sunday.