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Chicago Bears: Week 5 outing tested Justin Fields' physical toughness

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Donnie and Kevin continue the Week 6 previews with an NFC North showdown between the Bears and Packers

The discomfort was instant. As Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields sprinted to his right Sunday, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Yannick Ngakoue caught him from behind, tangling Fields’ feet and causing his stride to become discombobulated. Fields’ left leg planted awkwardly in his attempt to break free, and he went down hard.

His left knee was in significant pain.

“I knew I hyperextended it,” Fields said.

Fields slowly pulled himself up but hobbled to the bench. Andy Dalton came onto the field.

The collective gasp from Bears fans was felt across Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

Yet just a few minutes later, Fields tested his leg while jogging on the sideline, refocused and charged back into the game. He missed only three snaps.

Of all the encouraging developments for the Bears in the energizing 20-9 road victory, Fields’ avoidance of serious injury and ability to play through discomfort deserve special mention.

“That son of a buck is tough,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “He’s proven that when he was in college. He proved it out here.”

If the entirety of Week 4 was a measure of Fields’ mental fortitude, challenging him to move past the pronounced offensive failures in the Bears’ 26-6 loss in Cleveland, then Week 5 tested Fields’ physical toughness. He had the wind knocked out of him on a first-quarter run, then hurt his knee two possessions later.

None of it rattled him. He was determined to play through the discomfort and remained dialed in on keeping the offense steady.

“When you’re in the moment, you can’t think about what’s hurting,” Fields said. “You just think about executing that (next) play.”

Bears Raiders Football

Las Vegas Raiders safety Johnathan Abram (24) tackles Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) during the first half Sunday in Las Vegas.

From a statistical standpoint, Fields’ efforts were far from spectacular. He threw for just 111 yards and added only 4 on the ground. The highlight-reel moments were few and far between. Still, in a charged-up road environment, Fields’ grit was obvious.

“That’s the No. 1 thing I’m taking out of this,” Nagy said, “is his toughness.”

Two weeks in a row now, Fields has shown a level of toughness that has won over coaches and teammates. His response to adversity between his first and second starts helped the Bears rebound and beat the Lions 24-14 in Week 4. He followed Sunday with impressive poise and sturdiness, battling through pain and helping push the Bears past the Raiders.

Fields’ physical talents are undeniable. He has top-tier speed, a strong, accurate arm and a feel for the game that will aid his ascent. But in two short weeks, he also has supplied evidence that his resolve and dependability are high-level qualities that can help him become a championship-winning leader.

Here’s our Week 5 QB rewind.

Lions Bears Football

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Chicago. 

Defining moment

Before his career is finished, Fields will have much longer and far more impressive touchdown passes than the 2-yard dart he threw to Jesper Horsted in the second quarter. It was the rookie’s first career TD pass and only scoring throw to date.

Still, don’t underestimate the signs of promise within that sequence. The Bears faced second-and-goal from the 2 and called a play-action rollout. With linebacker Denzel Perryman slipping off coverage and charging hard at Fields, the Raiders’ pressure was more significant than anticipated.

Noticing that defensive back Amik Robertson had his back turned, Fields made a quick risk-reward calculation and a decisive throw as Perryman barreled toward him. Fields released the ball a half-beat before getting drilled.

“I knew (Robertson) couldn’t see the ball,” Fields said. “So I just threw it up and gave Jesper a chance. … Just put it where the defender isn’t.”

Horsted was running a corner route but adjusted to the unforeseen chaos, slowing his route and making eye contact with his quarterback while trying to create a window of opportunity.

“All Justin can see is where my eyes are going,” Horsted said. “So anything above the shoulders is going to be where I want the ball.”

Fields fired the football just above Horsted’s right shoulder, out of harm’s way and into a spot where a touchdown was possible.

“On the money,” Horsted said. “Good ball.”

Nagy was thrilled Fields had the presence of mind to take a calculated chance rather than just throw the ball away because Horsted wasn’t open.

“That,” Nagy said, “is growth for him.”

On the bright side

The Bears, after entering the game with the league’s worst third-down conversion rate at 28.9%, had their best day of the season in that category, converting 6 of 13 attempts. They ran off a surge of five consecutive third-down conversions in the second quarter, including four on their second touchdown drive.

Perhaps most notable in that series was Dalton’s 8-yard completion to Marquise Goodwin on third-and-7 from the Raiders 43. Coming in cold off the bench, Dalton diagnosed zone coverage, saw Goodwin sit down in a soft spot and drilled a completion. That moved the chains and extended a critical TD march.

Fields’ most significant third-down throw was his 13-yard completion to Darnell Mooney on third-and-12 during the Bears’ penultimate scoring drive. If the Raiders had gotten a stop, they would have gotten the ball back with 7 minutes remaining, trailing by five.

Fields, however, saw the Raiders dropping into coverage with five defenders backed up to the first-down line. His first option was Mooney and he made a decisive throw — on time and on target.

“Just get the first down. That’s all I’m thinking,” Fields said. “Stay in the pocket, find a way to get the first down.”

That pass required crisp timing and precise ball placement. Mooney ran a sharp route out of the slot and went down to make a nice catch.

“All week, we had that bad boy sitting there waiting for that moment,” Nagy said. “It’s one of those crucial third-and-12s. That was a big-time play in that game. If you don’t get that, now the momentum meter swings to them big time.”

Added Fields: “That’s just a timing throw. We practiced that play throughout the week. I saw they were back (defensively) and were kind of playing (at) the sticks on that. So with that look, I’m just trying to get the first down, something to keep the drive going.”

The Bears chewed up 32 more yards after that completion and finished the possession with a 46-yard Cairo Santos field goal to take a 17-9 lead. That was a clutch offensive contribution at a critical juncture.

Fields completed both of his pass attempts on the series and had another throw to Allen Robinson that netted a 14-yard pass interference penalty. Ten plays, 57 yards, 6:16 milked off the clock. That’s winning football.

Uh-oh

Two months ago, when Fields scrambled and attempted a spin move on Miami Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham during the preseason, he was hit hard and fumbled, the kind of lesson a rookie quarterback ideally learns early and figures out how to avoid such missteps. Immediately after that game, Fields promised to remove that trick from his running repertoire, aware of how it put both his body and the football at risk.

“After that,” he said, “I think I’m going to officially retire the spin move.”

An understandable goal on multiple levels. Last January, with a similar spin during a College Football Playoff victory over Clemson, Fields was hammered by linebacker James Skalski on an 11-yard scramble and immediately experienced significant pain in his ribs, right shoulder and right hip.

During training camp this summer, Fields admitted he still was “scarred” from that hit.

“Literally every time I tuck the ball down and run, I’m thinking about getting out of bounds or getting down,” he said then. “There are of course going to be times when you have to try to fight for extra yardage. But I’m definitely smarter and trying to protect myself more.”

Sunday’s game presented one of those moments when Fields was trying to fight for extra yardage to convert on third-and-4. On the Bears’ second possession, he took off on a quarterback draw and tried spinning past safety Johnathan Abram.

Abram drilled Fields and took the wind out of him. Fields was visibly shaken on the sideline.

“I couldn’t really breathe, to be honest with you,” he said.

So, uh, Justin. You said you were going to ditch the spin after that Clemson shot last winter, yet Sunday’s spin and hit looked eerily similar.

“Man,” Fields said, “you’re telling me. I don’t know. I have no comment on that.”

Going forward, Fields and the Bears might have to devote extra attention to making sure the big hits he absorbs when running don’t diminish his eagerness and instincts to run when merited. That can become a difficult balance.

“Just be smart,” Nagy said Monday. “That’s all. Be smart.”

Don’t forget, Mitch Trubisky injured his right shoulder when he was hit on a scramble against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11 of 2018. That injury caused him to miss two starts. The next year, Trubisky hurt his left shoulder in the fourth game when he was trying to extend a play outside the pocket and landed awkwardly while being tackled by Vikings pass rusher Danielle Hunter. That knocked him out for the rest of that afternoon plus the next game.

It’s impossible to say how much those injuries reduced Trubisky’s effectiveness as a runner and willingness to take off. But there were times in 2019 and 2020 when he didn’t take full advantage of opportunities to run, failing to utilize a notable strength.

Trubisky had eight outings with at least 40 rushing yards in his first 22 starts before that first shoulder injury late in 2018. He had only two more games during his final 28 regular-season starts for the Bears in which he reached 40 rushing yards.

Fields, of course, is faster and far more elusive than Trubisky and has better overall instincts on the run. The Bears believe Fields’ speed and playmaking ability as a runner will be a major asset deep into his career.

Now, there must be a collective effort to fine-tune his instincts, helping him understand when to fight for extra yardage and when to get down.

“At this level,” Nagy said, “things are faster and they hit harder.”

That said, Nagy saw Sunday’s hit as situational with Fields striving to pick up a first down. He wasn’t being reckless.

“Some of those are going to happen,” Nagy said. “You want to be smart. But he has a good feel for that.”

Odds and ends

After the Week 3 disaster in Cleveland, the Bears played the last two games largely on their terms. They led for 97 minutes of game time while trailing for just 5:49. The ability to play with a lead allowed the offense to stay committed to the running game. The Bears ran for more yards (331) than they threw for (294) during the last two games. That formula, behind an offensive line that is more than capable of clearing the way on the ground, is establishing an identity. Nagy’s film review of the win in Las Vegas confirmed for him that the line has been playing with a nasty edge that is setting a tone. Bears tight ends and receivers have been dedicated to blocking in the run game as well. Perhaps the current identity of Nagy’s offense isn’t what he envisioned when spring practices began. But when paired with the way the Bears defense is playing, it’s a winning formula. “When you create an identity, you stick to it,” Nagy said. “And when you know that’s who you are … when you win and lose, you’re doing it with an identity. The growth part with us is being able to schematically grow (from here).”

Nagy has remained elusive talking about the extent of Fields’ knee injury. So while it was promising that the rookie quarterback finished Sunday’s game, that isn’t a guarantee he’ll have the green light to practice in full Wednesday. Nagy dodged questions Sunday night and again Monday morning as to whether Fields was undergoing additional testing on his knee. At this point, the Bears don’t expect Fields’ injury will hamper him significantly this week. The medical staff will continue to keep tabs on the swelling and mobility of the knee. Fields was asked Sunday evening how he envisioned the next few days would unfold in his recovery process. “Probably strengthening exercises,” he said. “Just making sure it stays strong.”

By time of possession, the Bears’ 16-play, 86-yard touchdown march in the first half was their second-longest scoring drive of the season, eating up 8 minutes, 17 seconds. That trails only the 16-play, 81-yard touchdown drive against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1. That series lasted 9:38. The Bears had three scoring drives of at least 10 plays Sunday, upping their season total to five.

Through five games, the Bears have scored only one touchdown from outside the 10-yard line and none from beyond the 15. Their longest score is Dalton’s 11-yard pass to Robinson on the opening drive against the Bengals in Week 2. Eventually, the offense must evolve to a point where it can produce more quick-strike touchdowns. Still, Sunday’s 2-for-2 effort inside the red zone provided some positive energy. The Bears have turned 61.5% of their red-zone trips into touchdowns this season, an uptick from their 56.4% conversion rate in 2020.

The Bears totaled only 252 yards of offense and won Sunday, the 11th time during the Matt Nagy era they have been victorious with fewer than 300 total yards. The Bears are 24-9 under Nagy when the offense scores at least one touchdown before halftime. But the offense again failed to top 20 points, the fourth time that has happened this season and the 32nd time in 55 games under Nagy, including the playoffs.

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