Chicago Bears Q&A: Is there any precedent for Justin Fields becoming a difference maker? Can Velus Jones be the passing game’s ‘missing component’?

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			Chicago Bears Q&A: Is there any precedent for Justin Fields becoming a difference maker? Can Velus Jones be the passing game’s ‘missing component’?
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The Chicago Bears take a 2-1 record, a suddenly dominant running game and a still-struggling passing game into East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday to face the New York Giants.

The Tribune’s Brad Biggs opens his weekly Bears mailbag to address whether quarterback Justin Fields can rebound from a rough start to his career.

Like their failed predecessors, Justin Fields and the Bears coaching staff say all the right things, such as “we have to get better.” Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words. We now have a growing sample size (13 games) that consistently reveals Fields holds the ball too long and fails to see the entire field. There is little evidence he will get better. I sincerely believe the Bears will be looking for another QB next season via draft, trade or free agency — an all-too-familiar scenario for Bears fans. I am at a loss to identify a single QB who had such a poor career start and then became a difference maker. Thoughts? — Jim A., Plymouth, Minn.

The Bears are in an uncomfortable position when it comes to their passing game. They have been dominant running the football, helped by Fields’ ability, but haven’t parlayed any of the success on the ground into profits in the passing game. A lot of folks are talking about how successful running should create play-action passing opportunities. More importantly in my opinion, when opponents fill the box with eight defenders, it should create advantageous single-coverage situations on the outside that Fields should be able to win against. It hasn’t happened.

The sample size remains small, but the Bears have some jarring statistics. They are averaging 78.3 net passing yards, last in the NFL. The 31st-ranked Carolina Panthers average 161.3. The Bears’ 8.9% interception rate is more than double that of 29 teams. The only others are the New England Patriots (5.2%) and Los Angeles Rams (4.9%). The Bears’ 22.8% sack rate per pass attempt is more than double that of 28 teams. Next on the list are the New York Giants (14.1%), Cincinnati Bengals (12%) and Washington Commanders (11.5%).

That is on Fields, the offensive line and the skill-position targets, but it would be a mistake to blame protection for all 10 sacks. In fact, Fields is responsible for close to half of those, and there are plays in which the protection breaks down after he had the opportunity to target open receivers.

There’s no reason for the Bears to change course at this point. The organization — though not the new regime — has a ton invested in Fields, and if he does pan out, it would speed up the timetable for a rebuild. If the Bears can continue to generate takeaways, play better run defense and keep running the football well while playing solid special teams, they can win their share of games if the quarterback doesn’t lose games. That’s how a lot of the Lovie Smith era went, right?

Josh Allen had a rocky start to his career with the Buffalo Bills. I don’t know any scouts who felt good about the start of Jalen Hurts’ career with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he has been dynamic through three weeks this season.

Coach Matt Eberflus talked Monday about two things for Fields — cleaning up his footwork and not putting the ball in harm’s way, to which Eberflus attributed the second interception in Sunday’s victory over the Houston Texans. The Bears have been drilling Fields on footwork since the start of the offseason program. It’s one thing to have better footwork in individual drills and practice and another to have it when defenders are across from you in a game.

As far as keeping the ball out of harm’s way, that is important, but the Bears also have to get Fields to cut the ball loose when his receivers are coming open. He has missed seeing receivers get open or has been hesitant to rip it, and that’s a concern.

There are 14 games remaining and a lot of time for Fields to get valuable experience and improve. We need to see a lot more of the season play out before we start plotting what moves the Bears will need to make in a big 2023 offseason.

The Bears are to be commended for letting Eddie Jackson play his brand of football, which is to be a ballhawk. He is getting back to the old version of himself. However, he has to be one of the weakest tacklers in the league. Are the coaches trying to get him to wrap people up? Upon contact, all he does is try to swat the ball out or knock ball carriers down with a body check. He is, after all, the last line of defense and should be more physical. Thoughts? — Chris R., Midlothian

My first reaction is Jackson, through three games anyway, is looking like the difference maker in the secondary he was in 2018 and 2019. I don’t think he was an elite tackler then and he certainly isn’t now, but you’re asking for a lot if you want a safety who can be a center fielder and a rugged box defender. The Bears seem to be playing to Jackson’s strengths, and you might have seen that Matt Eberflus said Jackson was one of the few defenders who tackled well in the Week 2 loss in Green Bay.

Honestly, you’re probably nitpicking a little bit. If you want a big-time box defender at that position, you’re probably going to sacrifice when it comes to range and instincts in the passing game. If Jackson gets six interceptions or so this season, the Bears probably are willing to live with a couple of missed tackles here and there. He has looked more willing in that area this season than he was a year ago.

Through the same number of starts, who had the better stats, Mitch Trubisky or Justin Fields? Do you think Fields is just going through normal NFL QB growing pains? — @dav264

I’m not sure what normal quarterback growing pains are because every situation is unique. What is normal is the vast majority of quarterbacks have some rough spots early in their careers, and certainly Fields is struggling right now. Trubisky is having a rough go of it in Pittsburgh too.

Trubisky’s statistics through his first 13 starts (12 under John Fox’s staff and one under Matt Nagy’s staff) were slightly better than what Fields has done.

  • Trubisky: 219 of 365 (60.0%), 2,364 yards, 7 TDs, 7 INTs, 35 sacks, 77.5 passer rating
  • Fields: 182 of 315 (57.8%), 2,167 yards, 9 TDs, 14 INTs, 46 sacks, 69.9 passer rating

What is confounding is Fields is struggling more this season than he did as a rookie. A full season in offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s system will give us a much more complete picture of what the future could look like for Fields.

Can any Bears fan actually feel good about that win? I mean other than the Texans, who do they beat playing like that? Maybe the Jets? — @agpennypacker8

Never apologize for a victory in the NFL. They are too hard to come by, and recent Bears history ought to remind you of that. The Bears can’t do anything about their schedule, and they did just enough by dominating the Texans with the running game and getting two timely takeaways.

The Texans and Las Vegas Raiders are the only 0-3 teams in the league, but the Bears have six more games on the schedule against teams that are currently 1-2: the Washington Commanders, Detroit Lions (two games), Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots and New York Jets. They have a winnable game on the road this week against the 2-1 New York Giants and could have a solid record as they reach the end of October. Let’s not worry about the opponent as much as seeing the Bears show improvement.

How will the (hypothetical) return of Velus Jones and N’Keal Harry potentially bolster the offense? Jones being 25 and missing this much time is concerning, but if he’s who Bears management thinks he is, could he be the missing component? — @johnny2racks1

As discombobulated as the Bears passing game is, I’m not sure the next coming of Ja’Marr Chase would be the missing link. Not right now anyway. Some folks seem obsessed with Jones’ age as a rookie and I’m not sure why. If you’re worried about what the receiver position might look like in 2027, I get it. But we’re talking about 2022, and his age has nothing to do with this season or next year.

Jones was a limited participant in practice last week as he works his way back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him on and off for a good portion of training camp and the preseason. Considering how much time on the grass he has missed, to borrow a phrase from Matt Eberflus, it’s probably unrealistic to think he’ll play a major role in the passing game even with Byron Pringle (calf) on injured reserve. That doesn’t mean Jones can’t provide a boost as he finds his way.

I’m not sure when Harry will be in line to return from the high ankle sprain that landed him on injured reserve. Four weeks is about the bare minimum that skill-position players miss with that injury, and he could be several weeks away.

What should the top priority be? Wins this year or developing the team/culture for the future? — @dmaz2488

I’m a firm believer that your culture is about as good as your record. You know which teams consistently talk about their culture and how it’s getting better? Teams that are trying to dig themselves out of big holes. What do people talk about with the excellent teams that are consistently in the postseason picture? They analyze the strength of the roster and how good the players are.

Nothing develops players and a roster better than winning. It raises the level of buy-in. It’s a heck of a lot easier to coach corrections in a week coming off a victory than coming off a loss. Everything in the building is better when a team is winning. If the Bears are able to achieve modest success this season, it would be with young players who are improving and making a difference. Why wouldn’t you want to see the Bears win this season?

I’m not sure the Bears can improve by prioritizing development while making winning a secondary goal. I never will understand that line of thinking and I will take it one step further: If the players in the locker room don’t sense that the coaches are doing everything in their power to put them in a position to win every week, those coaches are going to lose the locker room in a hurry. Players put in work to win games. No other messaging will connect with them.

Are you worried the front office made a mistake by not signing Roquan Smith to a contract extension during the offseason? The price has definitely gone up. — @just_acy

Well, we’re speculating on what Smith’s “price” was in negotiations that broke down in August, and we’re not certain where the Bears offer was. The first thing I want to know is if you think the price went down after the Week 2 loss in Green Bay. He didn’t play particularly well in that game. GM Ryan Poles and his staff will evaluate Smith over the full season, not on a few games here and a few games there. He has a chance to be very good in this scheme, especially if the Bears can remain healthy on defense.

The big factor you’re not considering is the franchise tag, which the team can use in negotiations. Leverage is everything when it comes to contract talks. Smith can improve his leverage with more signature games like his 16-tackle performance against the Texans that also included an interception that set up the winning field goal. The Bears also have Smith at a bargain price this season, paying him a little more than $9.7 million, and that can’t be overlooked. Let’s see where the leverage is after the season.

If you were Luke Getsy, what would you be focusing on for Justin Fields while preparing for the Giants this week? — @chicagonic

Running the football. The Giants have allowed 100-yard games to Tony Pollard of the Dallas Cowboys and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers in the last two weeks. You have to go back to the end of 2005 to find the last time running backs topped 100 yards against the Giants in three consecutive weeks: Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson and Ryan Moats. The Giants rank 25th in run defense, allowing 138.3 yards per game, and are 28th in allowing 5.25 yards per attempt. That looks like a formula for success for the Bears whether David Montgomery (ankle) is available or not.

It will be a challenging week for Fields because the Giants do a lot of different stuff on defense under first-year coordinator Wink Martindale. They will show a lot of late rotation in the secondary and probably will bring some unscouted looks in terms of pressure and overloads. That being said, the Giants have only three sacks through three games and don’t have an interception. Quarterbacks have a 93.8 passer rating against them.

Getsy needs to craft a plan for Fields that can help him find some rhythm throwing the ball as the Giants will have to be concerned with the running game. That means clear and defined reads from the pocket and off play action. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears hope to hand off the ball 35 to 40 times in this game.

In the Texans game, with over 30 seconds left in the first half and all three timeouts, the Bears chose to run out the clock. They were trailing 14-13 at that point and they were first-and-10 at their own 23. Why wouldn’t they try to take a couple shots to get into field-goal range? — @ajlight315

Fair question. The obvious answer is they don’t have a lot of faith in their passing game and didn’t want to risk a turnover on their side of the field, which would have given the Texans an opportunity to tack on a field goal before halftime.

Matt Eberflus was asked about this after the game and explained that if he had it to do over again, he would have used a timeout to switch from 13 personnel (one running back, one wide receiver, three tight ends) to 11 personnel (one running back, three wide receivers, one tight end) after Khalil Herbert’s 9-yard run gave them a first down at the 28-yard line.

“Here is where we’ve got to be better because we were in 13 personnel going on third-and-1 and we saw that they subbed,” Eberflus said. “Once I saw them sub there, I should have called timeout at 35 seconds and we would have been fine. I have to be better in that situation right there going from 13 personnel back to 11 once we got the first (down).”

Fields was 4 of 11 for 45 passing yards in the first half and needed to gain roughly 35 yards for the Bears to attempt a long field goal in breezy conditions. I wasn’t all that surprised they chose to let the clock run.

Did I see Jack Sanborn in there first and then Joe Thomas took his spot? — @seabasssay

No. Thomas, who was promoted from the practice squad, was the replacement for Matt Adams (hamstring) at strong-side linebacker. Thomas had a good game with five tackles in 26 snaps, and the coaching staff turned to him because of his experience and range. Sanborn got one snap on defense at the goal line. I would expect Thomas to remain in the defensive game plan at least until Adams is healthy — and he could supplant Adams.

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