10 Bears Things: Even with Justin Fields, offense is lacking

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10 Bears Things: Offense is lacking, even with Fields originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bears are now 3-3 after Aaron Rodgers declared himself the team owner at Soldier Field on Sunday. Here are this week’s 10 Bears Things following the 24-14 loss:

1. The free play that wasn’t

There are many examples to illustrate the gap that remains between the Bears and Packers, but one of the more obvious examples was the “free play” that turned into an interception for the Bears. The fact that it happened against the Packers — who take advantage of free plays better than anyone — just made it worse.

To start, Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark probably jumped offsides, but it was closer than you might think. Bears head coach Matt Nagy gave a “no comment” when asked Monday if he thought Clark was offsides.

From my view, center Sam Mustipher snapped the ball too soon. That’s because tight end Cole Kmet wasn’t set yet. The center is supposed to quick snap if the defense jumps, but he shouldn’t do it until he knows his offense is set. There’s a balance there. Technically, the refs missed two penalties on that play.

“That was a weird looking play,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “It looked like it was almost a false start, as well.”

Rodgers pointed out that on the first play of the game, Bears pass rusher Robert Quinn jumped offsides, but the Packers’ offensive line also moved so the play was blown dead. In order to get the free play, the offense can’t move at the snap.

“It looked like that could have been blown dead possibly,” Rodgers said about the Bears’ attempt at a free play.

But a flag wasn’t thrown, which is something Fields can learn from.

“Most times, including 12 (players) on the field, I'll peek to the line judge to the side of the foul and just make sure that there's a flag coming out,” Rodgers said.

That was one teaching point. The other is that entire offense has to be on the same page. When the Packers get a free play, the wide receivers know to run deep. In this case, Allen Robinson cut off his route when Fields started to scramble.

“You see Justin scramble out to the right and A-Rob is running on his route and thinks it turns into a scramble to the right,” Nagy said. “So just as he’s going to throw the ball, A-Rob runs to the right and loses vision … (Fields) thought that A-Rob was going to be there at that spot and they were just off because of the scramble mode that we got into.”

Nagy mentioned that the Bears practiced the free play drill on Wednesday and Thursday last week. Obviously it’s something they need to get better at. Regardless of what the officials did on that play, the Bears did not execute their part correctly.

2. Fields stands up for himself

It was interesting to see/hear Fields get a little testy in his postgame press conference Sunday. And it happened twice.

The first time it happened was when Fields was asked about not seeing Robinson when the receiver broke wide open down the middle of the field.

“He's usually running off the corner on that, but that's a naked play and I just pulled up because the (defensive) end was upfield, but that play is not designed to go to him,” Fields said.

The reporter tried again to point out that Robinson was open and that’s when Fields definitively repeated himself.

"That's a naked play and my eyes aren't supposed to go there,” Fields said. “Appreciate you.”

Then, at the end of the press conference, Fields was asked if he is still adjusting to the speed of big men in the NFL.

“No.”

That was it. And the press conference ended.

Fields has proven to be thoughtful and respectful to the media in his short time in Chicago, and it’s certainly OK for him to defend himself when asked critical questions. Overall, I find his attitude after both wins and losses to be very encouraging. It’s obvious he takes the game very seriously, but he also isn’t afraid to have fun when things go well.

As for not seeing Robinson wide open downfield, Nagy explained the play Monday:

“What happens is their safety, (Adrian) Amos, double-teamed the swing route, which was (Darnell) Mooney, so then the corner didn’t go on the post, so A-Rob on that play, you know, ended up popping wide open, but as he’s going through his progression, he’s reading it, he also has a guy in his face, so he makes one guy miss and now he starts to see down field.”

Nagy pointed out that it’s much easier to see a guy running wide open from the press box than down on the field with pressure in your face. He also mentioned that one of the officials was close to Robinson, making it look like a defender might be there. Regardless, it looked like Fields was about to launch the ball, but felt some pressure coming from behind and didn’t want to have the ball knocked out of his hand. He then scrambled for a first down.

As a coach, you can live that, although I do think Fields could have gotten the throw off. Nagy is right that it’s easier to see that on tape or from the press box. It could have been a touchdown, but it still was a first down.

3. Nagy sees growth in Fields

Nagy came to Monday’s press conference fully prepared to detail some of the good things Fields did against the Packers. And he started right away by highlighting plays 5-7 on the Bears’ first touchdown drive:

“Those three plays right there for Justin were special. The very first play he took a three-step drop, nice little hitch, and a corner route to Mooney right on time. That was a professional throw, professional play. Great play by the line, everybody. The very next play, he comes back and they run a Cover-2 and he hits A-Rob in the side pocket there down the sideline. Great throw, great catch, great execution. Follows it back up with a good chip protection shot play, where the safety's playing kinda tight, cutting a deep cross. And he goes with the post alert, which is what we teach him. All of that happened on time and in rhythm. When you can play quarterback and play on time and in rhythm, you see good things happen. That was awesome, those three plays right there. We got a P.I. in the end zone, we get the ball at the 1, we score a touchdown. I thought for him that was great.”

Nagy then moved to the second drive of the third quarter, which didn’t result in any points:

"You go to plays 37, 38 and 39. I put all those three down for great decisions, really, really good decisions. He had one where he checked it down to Khalil (Herbert), went through his progression, checked it down. Then he came back the next play and — even though we dropped it — he made a good decision on the one to Damiere (Byrd), that he threw on a little hit route, smoke route. And then he came back with an RPO.”

The RPO was read well by Fields and created a nice, easy throw to Mooney for a 11 yards.

Finally, Nagy highlighted the Bears’ fourth quarter touchdown drive, which he called Fields’ best drive of the season.

“I thought where he really grew was, in our offense in general, it was 11 plays on that second touchdown drive, play 44 to 54. We were challenged with some different things within that, whether it was a scramble, whether it was decision making, whether it was a throw. Those 11 plays right there, that was one of the better drives of the season. And for sure, I think, Justin's best. All of that, when you go back and look at those plays, that's what gets you excited is being able to see that. Now, we need to do more of that.”

What was particularly impressive, in my opinion, was that the Bears had a 16-yard touchdown run taken off the board due to a holding call that put them back at the 26-yard-line. How many times in the past would we have seen the Bears only get a field goal or not even score in that situation? Instead, Fields responded by completing his next three passes to get into the end zone.

4. So what’s missing?

Here’s the thing: If Fields is showing growth and the Bears have a legitimate rushing attack — which they do — then why are they still only scoring 16.3 points per game?

I asked Nagy that exact question Monday.

“We’re not scoring enough. You need to score more, we understand that. How we get to that, we’re going through that identity. I think we all feel good about the identity but now it’s like, within that identity, what else do we need to do to compliment that, and how are we going to get to that point? We’re working through all that. And now we’ve got a big challenge ahead of us in Tampa Bay.”

In other words, Nagy realizes they need to score more points and they’re trying to figure out how to do that.

As of Monday morning, the Bears rank 30th in points per game, dead last in yards per play (4.3) and dead last in passing yards per game (117.2). Obviously the 47 yards of total offense in Cleveland didn’t help, but it can’t all be blamed on that game. Even in the three games since, the Bears’ 5.2 yards/play average ranks 27th in the league.

Meanwhile, the Bears are seventh in the league in rushing (129.0). So despite the growth that Fields is showing, the Bears’ passing attack is still really holding the offense back.

5. The safety problem

This seems to be a problem that won’t go away. Safeties Tashaun Gipson and Eddie Jackson both missed multiple tackles Sunday. Gipson allowed a touchdown on one of them and Jackson was very fortunate Davante Adams stepped out of bounds after he weakly threw his body into the Packers’ wideout instead of wrapping up.

Jackson’s tackling problems are well documented at this point and the lack of desire to wrap up shows up on film every week. He usually attempts to throw his body into ball carriers instead of wrapping up and taking them to the ground. On Aaron Jones’ 28-yard run in the third quarter, Jackson ran up on Jones very cautiously and ended up getting pushed backwards for 10 additional yards before Khalil Mack hustled all the way from the line of scrimmage to assist him on the tackle.

In the NFL, you can’t afford to have one safety with tackling problems. The Bears might have two. That has to change.

6. Jackson’s second mistake

Jackson didn’t do himself any favors with the fan base late Sunday with a tweet that has since been deleted. In response to former Bear Lance Briggs’ criticism on NBC Sports Chicago’s “Football Aftershow,” Jackson retweeted a Pro Football Focus tweet from 2011 that stated nobody in the NFL missed more tackles than Briggs from 2008-10.

Briggs, of course, was one of the more reliable tacklers in franchise history, but even if he wasn’t, it is very odd to go digging up a random tweet from 2011 to clap back at very fair criticism. Briggs is a TV analyst now and he was just stating the obvious.

Jackson’s downfall the last few seasons has been very interesting to watch. There were back-to-back plays Sunday that illustrate that downfall and the second of those two plays was the weak tackle on Adams (which, by the way, still counted as a tackle). But on the play before that, Rodgers lobbed a deep ball to nobody in particular and Jackson was in the general vicinity, but wasn’t able to make a play on the ball. From my vantage point from the press box, I was surprised he didn’t try to at least dive for it, and I immediately wondered if the 2018 version of Jackson — who picked off six passes — would have made the play.

7. Mario Edwards Jr.’s penalty problem

A week after Mario Edwards Jr. had two unnecessary roughness penalties in Las Vegas, he added a taunting penalty to his resumé against the Packers. Granted, Aaron Rodgers got away with goading him by grabbing his face mask, but the bad penalties keep adding up.

The Bears gave Edwards Jr. a 3-year, $11.66 million extension in the offseason despite the fact that he was involved in an off-the-field incident in Charlotte last season and was suspended for the first two games of the 2021 season due to violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Edwards gave the Bears 1.5 sacks in his Week 3 season-debut in Cleveland, but has since provided just one quarterback hit and two assisted tackles in his last three games. Including the two games he was suspended for, he’s only been on the field for 19 percent of the available snaps this season and has three personal fouls in four games.

8. Biggest surprise and disappointment

With the Bears at 3-3 six games in, it seems like a good time to take a look at the biggest surprise and disappointment of the season so far.

For the biggest surprise, I’ll go with sixth-round rookie running back Khalil Herbert. I got a sense in training camp that he would be a contributor this year, but no one could have expected that he would step up with 172 rushing yards on 37 carries in the last two weeks with David Montgomery out with a knee injury and Damien Williams out with COVID-19. Herbert has been very impressive.

There's still a lot of season left, but for the biggest disappointment, I have to go with Allen Robinson. With Justin Fields showing an ability/willingness to push the ball downfield, it is very surprising that Robinson hasn’t been more productive. He is averaging just 3.5 receptions and 39 yards per game. He only has one touchdown and that came from Andy Dalton. For a guy playing on the franchise tag, Robinson must be more involved in the offense going forward.

9. Opponent look ahead: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It’s never a great time to play Tom Brady, but this seems like particularly cruel timing after a loss to Aaron Rodgers in which he accurately let everyone know that he owns the Bears.

Brady and the Bucs somehow lost to Nick Foles and the Bears at Soldier Field last year, with Brady infamously forgetting that it was fourth down on his team’s final offensive play. That’s a break the Bears won’t be receiving this week in Tampa.

The Bucs haven’t slowed down at all since winning the Super Bowl, with Brady leading the league in passing with 340.7 yards per game. That’s 223.5 more passing yards per game than the Bears are averaging. Yikes.

10. Final word

Sunday’s loss to the Packers provided a good reminder that patience is needed this season. The most important thing is that Justin Fields gets better as the season goes along, but there are certainly going to be ebbs and flows. I continue to maintain that he does not looked overwhelmed and the future is bright.

That said, the Bears must improve offensively as Fields grows. Averaging just 117.2 passing yards per game and 16.3 points per game is not going to get it done against teams like the Packers and Buccaneers. With the No. 7 ranked rushing attack, it’s on the coaching staff (and Fields) to get more out of the play-action game. And frankly, the receiving options need to step up and make more plays. Robinson has to put up bigger numbers the rest of the way. Mooney had a drop Sunday. Jimmy Graham — amazingly — has just one catch on the season. Cole Kmet was better Sunday, but must be more involved. Literally any other receiver needs to become some type of threat that opposing defenses prepare for.&

All that said, if Fields continues to improve and the Bears stay somewhere around .500 and in the wild card hunt, 2021 won’t be defined as a disappointing season.

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