Whatever the opposite of stage fright is, Justin Fields had it Sunday night, a giddiness that he had a spot on football’s big stage. Chicago Bears at Los Angeles Rams. Prime time. More than 70,000 fans in attendance and an incomparable buzz pulsating through SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif.
Man, this is the freaking NFL.
“I was taking it in during the game,” Fields said less than an hour after the Bears’ 34-14 loss. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is crazy.’ Then at halftime, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is still crazy.’ ”
In the first regular-season game of his professional career, Fields was on the field for five snaps. Two passes, two handoffs and a third-quarter read-option run that he turned into his first career touchdown.
This was part of the Bears’ plan for their quarterback of the future, a backup role that also allowed him to see a bit of live action, gain experience and put strain on the Rams defense.
“You get a feel for the atmosphere,” Fields said. “And you see how fast those guys are coming.”
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The Bears offense still has 33-year-old starter Andy Dalton at the controls, and Dalton played about as expected in Sunday’s lopsided loss. He showed poise and decisiveness throughout the night and helped the Bears amass 322 total yards against an elite defense. But he also threw a costly interception in the end zone on the opening series and did little to create any game-changing momentum.
In a familiar trend, the Bears offense failed to score more than 20 points. Including the playoffs, that has happened 29 times in Matt Nagy’s 51 games as coach.
Now the Bears are — cue the Bill Belichick audio — on to Cincinnati. A Week 2 home opener against the Bengals is next, and the evolution of a work-in-progress offense remains a high priority.
Finding ways to utilize Fields’ gifts will be a necessity for Nagy and his coaching staff, even as Dalton holds on to the QB1 role. But at least the Bears found a few openings Sunday to sneak Fields onto the field — to give him reps, test his composure and allow him to feel that euphoric excitement that he expressed when the night was over.
“As a kid,” Fields said, “I was kind of a realist. So I never really thought I’d have the talent to make it into the NFL. Now it’s just crazy seeing myself here and just seeing God working.”
Bears fans have a request in to continue seeing God work with Fields.
Here’s our comprehensive Week 1 QB review.
How Bears is this? A 50-yard kickoff return to open the season. A 41-yard run by David Montgomery on the second play from scrimmage. A heartening trip into the red zone and then inside the Rams 5-yard line.
And then? Just a few moments later, a 7-0 deficit.
Yep, after spending six-plus months in the offseason stressing the need to be crisp on third down and more efficient inside the red zone, the Bears short-circuited in both areas on the first possession of the season.
On third-and-1 at the Rams 3, tight end Cole Kmet flinched before the snap. False start. (For what it’s worth, the running play the Bears had dialed up seemed like it was an instant loss anyway.)
In the ensuing scramble, the Bears had trouble shuttling the right personnel onto the field, calling a new play and breaking the huddle quickly enough.
“Just getting everything situated,” Dalton explained after the game.
That wouldn’t be a huge deal if similar sloppiness hadn’t plagued the Bears inside the red zone throughout 2020.
After those missteps, on third-and-6 from the 8, Dalton’s pass into the end zone was deflected by linebacker Kenny Young and snatched in the end zone by cornerback David Long.
Three snaps later — with a busted coverage in the Bears secondary — Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford hit Van Jefferson for a 67-yard touchdown pass and the tone for the night was set.
On the interception, Dalton explained he was throwing to wide receiver Darnell Mooney, who was breaking in toward the post from his original alignment near the numbers to the left. But even if Dalton’s pass hadn’t been tipped, Mooney didn’t seem to be on the line the ball was headed. Nagy hinted Monday that wires may have been crossed in terms of a route adjustment based on the leverage of the defensive back.
“They were working through a route combo there,” Nagy said. “There’s an option there that they can use with (whatever) leverage they get from the defender. That part was a little bit off.”
Whatever happened, the Bears were on the doorstep of an impressive scoring drive to open the season, then made a mess of everything. It all felt so familiar.
On the bright side
On the final snap of an encouraging 16-play, 81-yard touchdown march in the third quarter, the Bears turned Fields loose on a read-option run from the Rams 3. Nothing fancy. Just a designed run that allowed the rookie quarterback to read outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, then gave Fields an opportunity to use his special talents as a runner.
After the shotgun snap and a fake give to Damien Williams, Fields shot out to his right. He used key blocks by tight end J.P. Holtz and wide receiver Allen Robinson and made a decisive and timely cut toward the goal line.
Floyd caught Fields from behind and hit him enough to knock him off balance. But Fields had little difficulty darting across the goal line and into the yellow paint in the north end zone of SoFi stadium.
The touchdown pulled the Bears within 20-14. And with a large contingent of Bears fans in attendance, a loud roar shook through portions of the stands.
The response of Fields’ teammates was equally telling. Kmet came in for a chest bump and almost smashed his teammate.
“He almost ran me over,” Fields said.
Montgomery explained why Fields’ electricity means a little something different to everyone.
“J. Fields is special,” he said. “He already has a natural aura to him that changes the flow of how things go. He’s a great kid. A humble human being. So when it happened, it was very refreshing to see J. Fields go and do what he do.”
The natural follow-up, of course, is when will Fields be given many more chances to do what he do.
Nagy was aggressive in trying to extend drives. The Bears went for it on four fourth downs. (Across the NFL in Week 1, only the Lions went for it on fourth down more, and they were trailing by 28 deep into the second half.)
The Bears, though, failed to converted any of their four attempts. Nagy’s desire to show belief in what he sees as an improving offense wasn’t rewarded with meaningful production.
On fourth-and-4 from the Rams 41 in the first quarter with a blitz coming, Dalton’s quick pass to Robinson over the middle was broken up by Jalen Ramsey. It appeared Kmet was running free over the middle and in position to pick up a first down. But with a free rusher closing in, Dalton didn’t have time to go through his progression, had to go to his hot read and fired to the Bears’ best receiver. Robinson failed to haul it in.
One possession later, on fourth-and-4 from the Rams 38, Dalton was sacked by Justin Hollins and fumbled. The turnover was created when Hollins confused left tackle Justin Peters, then beat him around the edge. The pocket was also collapsing in front of Dalton on that five-man pressure.
On fourth-and-10 from their 36 on the Bears’ final possession, Dalton was thrown like a ragdoll by Aaron Donald for a 9-yard loss.
Most notably, the Bears’ desperation fourth-and-15 gamble with 10:07 remaining had little chance to succeed with Dalton firing wide of Mooney on the right sideline on a pass that would have been short of a first down had it been caught.
That decision to go for it seemed to be a particularly telling vote of no-confidence from Nagy in his stunningly unreliable defense.
The Bears could have had kicker Cairo Santos attempt a 48-yard field goal to close within 27-17 with plenty of time remaining. But the fourth-and-15 long shot felt more appealing.
The bigger problem in that sequence was that the Bears slipped into fourth-and-long to begin with. That occurred after Dalton took an unfortunate 15-yard sack on first down from the Rams 25.
The play was designed for a double move by Mooney, a shot play into the end zone. But Dalton never had a clean pocket. Donald easily beat left guard Cody Whitehair. Hollins also won his rush against left tackle Elijah Wilkinson to further the pocket disruption.
Dalton never had a chance, creating an unfortunate loss at a key moment. The Bears reclaimed 10 yards on a third-down completion to Kmet. But an otherwise solid drive was derailed by the sack.
“(Donald) made a play. That’s what he does,” Nagy said. “Sometimes there’s risk-reward when you take a shot. That can happen at times. If that doesn’t happen, then maybe we have a guy (open) and we hit it down the sideline. But that’s what you’re dealing with when you play this team.”
Odds and ends
The Bears’ best drive was the 16-play, 81-yard march in the third quarter that ended with Fields’ touchdown run. Fields never would have had the opportunity for that score had Dalton not made a confident decision and a precise back-shoulder throw to tight end Jimmy Graham to convert on third-and-8 one snap earlier. Say what you want about the 34-year-old Graham. He’s still an incredibly valuable matchup chess piece, especially inside the red zone. And in that sequence, even when matched up against Ramsey, Graham used all of his 6-foot-7, 259-pound frame to bully his way into a catch against an ultra-physical All-Pro cornerback. “That’s Jimmy one-on-one,” Dalton said. “Basically all it was. I gave him a shot and he made a great catch.”
The Bears’ penultimate series of the first half stalled near midfield when Dalton failed to connect with Robinson on third-and-2. In live action, it was clear that Long slammed into Robinson a full beat before the ball arrived. The slow-motion replays only confirmed how egregious the infraction was. Somehow, the officials never threw a flag and the Bears were forced to punt. Bad break.
Of Dalton’s 38 pass attempts, only three traveled more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, a somewhat startling reality that looks even more jarring on the Next Gen Stats passing chart. One of those three throws was the aforementioned interception in the end zone. Another was the fourth-and-15 misfire to Mooney on a pass that had to be thrown deeper out of necessity. Dalton’s longest completion was a 19-yarder to Marquise Goodwin in the first quarter, a hook route that the veteran receiver caught 9 yards past the line of scrimmage and turned upfield for added yardage. For the most part, with respect for the Rams defense and star defensive lineman Aaron Donald — plus a bit of a feeling-out period with their own offensive line — the Bears passing attack was short, shorter and shortest. “We want to make sure that we are stretching the field vertically,” Nagy said Monday. “And we weren’t able to get that as much (Sunday). But we kind of knew going into it that it was going to be one of those types of games.”
By contrast, Stafford had nine completions of at least 15 yards, including TD strikes of 67 and 56. There might not have been a prettier throw in Week 1 anywhere in the NFL than the 37-yard dart Stafford threw to tight end Tyler Higbee in the third quarter. Higbee got separation from Roquan Smith on a corner route, and on play action Stafford showed great precision and touch in putting the ball on the money. That was part of a brilliant 321-yard, three-touchdown night for Stafford, who posted a 156.1 passer rating and showed that his union with Rams coach Sean McVay could get scary. “There was a look in his eye,” McVay said. “He had confidence in his teammates. He expected to play well. And he did a great job.”
There’s nothing more valuable to a quarterback than a dependable running game, and the Bears were successful in that department, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. Montgomery turned 16 rushes into 108 yards and a touchdown. His first run was an explosive 41-yard burst, an inside-zone run on which he made a decisive cutback into a huge hole created by guard James Daniels and tackle Germain Ifedi and took off. Montgomery’s touchdown from a yard out in the third quarter might have been more impressive as he was hit by Donald nearly 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage but kept his feet and powered into the end zone. “I got opportunities,” Montgomery said. “And when I did, I was trying to make sure I extended those.”
Fields’ second completion provided one of the head-scratching moments for the Bears offense, a 1-yard shovel pass to Robinson on first down inside the red zone in the third quarter. Rookie left tackle Larry Borom, who was on in relief of injured starter Peters, had his left ankle rolled up on during the play, an accident that brought to memory the gruesome ankle injury Kyle Long suffered on a similar shovel pass in Tampa in 2016. Borom left the game and could be out a while. Beyond that, it’s a bit confusing why the Bears felt a need to send Fields out to run a play that doesn’t take full advantage of his gifts as either a runner, a passer or a passer on the run. Philosophically, that’s something Nagy will have to better explain. In what way does Fields’ presence in that situation benefit the offense or the rookie himself? In addition, it’s hard to tell whether the shovel pass was the proper read and decision on a play that seemed to be set up to provide options for Fields, including a possible jet-sweep handoff to Mooney based on the way Hollins reacted to the play defensively. The Rams outside linebacker didn’t widen much, and a possible Mooney run seemed to be blocked well to the outside. As it stands, Fields tossed the 1-yard completion to Robinson and quickly went back to the bench for the next two snaps.