How Bears' 2021 schedule may impact when Justin Fields plays

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How Bears' schedule may impact when Justin Fields plays originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

If you’ve made your way to this column, there’s a 100 percent chance you’ve asked yourself this question at least 10 times since April 29: When will Justin Fields make his Bears debut?

The answer is that no one really knows – including Bears head coach Matt Nagy. Fields' mastery of the offense and play on the practice field will make the decision, and when he’s ready, the Bears will play him.

But Wednesday’s schedule release still provides us with a great opportunity to make some educational guesses. I believe that Fields is good enough to force the issue and will show Nagy very early that he is ready to play at the NFL level. If that’s the case, then the timing of Fields’ debut will likely be determined by how much the Bears are winning with Andy Dalton. And that’s where the schedule can have an impact.

With that in mind, here are five games that look like possible starting points for Justin Fields:

Week 1 at Los Angeles Rams (SNF)

I’m not ready to rule out a Week 1 debut for Justin Fields, although I’d say it’s more likely Andy Dalton begins the season as the starter. Throwing Fields into the fire against the Rams’ defense would be tough, but then again, the element of surprise in the first game of the season could work as an advantage. I believe Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy when they say Fields won’t play until he’s ready – I just think there’s a chance he shows he’s ready in the preseason.

Week 4 vs Detroit Lions

If we’re being honest, there aren’t many soft-landing spots for Fields in what is a pretty tough schedule. That’s why the Week 4 home game against a rebuilding Lions team could make sense. If the Bears lose in Cleveland in Week 3, it’s possible they are sitting at 1-2 with plenty of public pressure to start Fields. Again, I don’t think the Bears will cave to that pressure, but I do think Fields will show early on that he gives the team its best chance to win and this game against the Lions could serve as an early confidence booster.

Week 8 vs San Francisco

This comes in the middle of a brutal six game stretch against the Raiders, Packers, Buccaneers, 49ers, Steelers and Ravens, which means if you start Fields here, you’re handing him a tough test right away. That said, the Bears could be coming off back-to-back losses to Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady here, making it painfully obvious they need to jumpstart the offense at the quarterback position. There’s a human nature element to all this and the coaching staff is going to want to see Fields play if they happen to be sitting at 3-4. Plus, Trey Lance could be starting for the 49ers on the other side.

Week 9 at Pittsburgh Steelers (MNF)

This is the in-game scenario I painted in my game-by-game predictions column – where Fields takes over at halftime on Monday Night Football, making ESPN very happy. Dalton is 3-13 against the Steelers in his career and this is a really tough road game, but one the Bears can keep close with their defense. That means they might need an offensive spark to win. With a plan to perhaps start Fields after the bye week, I could see a scenario where they speed up that plan by a half to attempt to go into the bye week on a good note.

Week 13 vs Arizona Cardinals

Starting Fields out of the bye week makes some sense, but that Week 11 game is against the Baltimore Ravens and is quickly followed by the Thanksgiving game in Detroit on a short week. That’s not an ideal situation to throw at the rookie. Frankly, I feel like Fields will already be playing this late in the season, but if he’s not, the Cardinals game in Week 13 seems like the latest logical option. The Bears won’t really go into back-to-back primetime against the Packers and Vikings with Dalton as the starter, will they? Starting Fields at home against the Cardinals’ defense makes sense before you let him have his first crack at Lambeau Field in primetime.

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