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- American football coach
Hoge’s 10 Bears Things: Why Justin Fields changes everything originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The Bears head into their bye week on a four-game losing streak after a 29-27 loss to the Steelers on Monday Night Football. And yet, things feel a little positive?
We explore that dynamic and a ton more in this week’s 10 Bears Things:
1. Justin Fields changes everything
The Bears may not have left Pittsburgh with a win, but they sure left with some respect. It’s been a long time since they were involved in a legitimately entertaining and competitive fourth quarter in primetime and it’s been even longer — like never — since they had a legitimately entertaining and promising young quarterback to show off in the national spotlight.
You don’t have to accept moral victories, but you sure as heck are allowed to celebrate the big picture. I have news for you: the Bears aren’t winning the Super Bowl this season. Winning in Pittsburgh would not have changed that reality. That’s not to diminish the impact a win might have had in Justin Fields’ development — winning is certainly better than losing — but make no mistake, the development still happened. Fields still gets to go into the bye week knowing he led a spectacular go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter against one of the league’s tougher defenses.
“It’s one of those moments where really all of us as a kid growing up, you live for those moments and you never know how people are going to react,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said Monday.
Fields didn’t flinch. And the dime to Allen Robinson and the touchdown to Darnell Mooney didn’t even qualify as his best throw of the night.
“That throw he made to Jimmy Graham (up the seam) — just so we’re real clear — that’s probably a top-3 throw in the NFL this season,” Nagy said. “With who he had in his face, the way he threw it, the accuracy, the timing, etc., that’s a special, rare throw. When you see those throws you get excited.”
I can tell you one person who got excited: Bears general manager Ryan Pace. He happened to be sitting behind us reporters in the press box Monday night and he pounded the table in front of him in excitement when Graham secured the catch.
Nagy’s right that Fields did things Monday night that went well beyond rookie expectations. As ugly as the Bears’ offense looked in the first half, it sure looked a lot like Fields’ Ohio State offense in the second half. The Bears pushed the ball downfield, with Fields averaging 15.7 air yards/attempt, which is the second most by a quarterback this season, according to Next Gen Stats.
Justin Fields had most of his production when pushing the ball down the field, completing 9 of 16 passes traveling 10+ air yards for 225 yards and a TD (+9.6% CPOE).
Fields averaged 15.7 air yards/attempt, the 2nd-most by a QB in a game this season.#CHIvsPIT | #DaBears pic.twitter.com/L4agkzuWRY
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 9, 2021
It’s still fair to wonder why it took so long to get in sync as an offense, but offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was in a groove in the second half, even with simple positive plays. One of my favorite plays of the game was a zone-read keeper for five easy yards on first down. Fields just kept the ball, snagged five yards and slid. That’s a great play on first down.
For once, the national television shows were praising the Bears the day after a game. ESPN’s “Get Up” was actually giving Matt Nagy some praise Monday morning. There was legitimate excitement about the Bears — and all of it came after a loss.
As I’ve written in this column so many times over the years, the Bears aren’t going to be a Super Bowl contender until they find the franchise quarterback. It’s why offering a ransom for Russell Wilson in the offseason was completely defensible. Instead, they landed Fields.
And yes, there’s a ton to be excited about. The Bears might be 3-6, but I can guarantee you there are many other NFL teams jealous of their rookie quarterback.
2. A lot of football left
One of the reasons why the NFL is so wildly popular is because of the weekly roller coaster of emotions. I’m not going to lie, at halftime in Pittsburgh, I was thinking about having to cover another GM/head coaching search this coming offseason.
Based on my Twitter mentions, the majority of Bears fans still hope that happens. Maybe there are changes, but the upcoming bye week provides a reminder that there’s a lot of football left in 2021. A lot can happen in eight games. Just look at the progress Fields has made the last two weeks.
There’s a very good chance Fields has another clunker somewhere in these next eight games. There’s also a very good chance that he continues to get better overall. And if that happens, Bears fans are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the coaching staff deserves some of the credit. You might not believe in Nagy, but how did you feel about Lazor’s play calling in the second half Monday night? How do you feel about the job quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo is doing with Fields? Nagy gets some credit somewhere in there.
That’s not to excuse the coaching staff from mistakes that have been made. When the season is over, Bears chairman George McCaskey will still need to review and question the way in which the quarterbacks were handled in training camp. Did Nagy’s steadfast commitment to Andy Dalton put Fields in the best position to succeed when he was forced into action due to injury? To Nagy’s credit, he seems open to personal reflection on the topic.
“You think back to his first start in Cleveland. That hostile environment, great defense, first start, on the road. And also us as coaches, building and formulating a game plan for him, not necessarily knowing exactly what was gonna be his strengths heading into that game. We feel a lot different now,” Nagy said. “We feel better as to the types of plays we’re putting in that fit him, fit our offense. Trying to find that match and that balance.”
It’s still fair to wonder why it took so long to get to that point Monday night. Why did it take until the fifth possession to see a bootleg that immediately resulted in a 25-yard completion to Cole Kmet? Why was only one screen called? Why were there so many penalties on both sides of the ball? Why was a majority of the game played so sloppy?
On the other hand, you also have to give the coaching staff credit for the way in which the Wildcat was deployed with running back David Montgomery. It played a huge role in the Bears’ comeback.
The point is this: there’s a lot of football to be played. Sometimes players and teams make significant progress throughout a season. Sometimes they completely fall apart. It would take a small miracle for the Bears to make the playoffs, but if Fields continues to progress like he did Monday, then there’s a good chance the offense looks a heck of a lot better in January.
And when it’s over, all of it will be part of the evaluation of the head coach and general manager.
3. That being said…
Why in the world did Nagy opt to attempt a 65-yard field goal at the end of the game instead of launching a Hail Mary with Justin Fields’ arm? The longest field goal ever made at Heinz Field is 56 yards. Cairo Santos’ personal best is 55. You really thought he was suddenly going to hit a 65-yarder?
The decision is even more mind-boggling when you consider the Bears nearly pulled off a miracle in Green Bay two years ago on a crazy final play that was well drawn up. All tight end Jesper Horsted had to do was lateral the ball to Allen Robinson and the Bears would have been lining up for a possible game-tying two-point conversion.
Replicating such a play or completing a Hail Mary would have been a long shot. But at least it’s a shot. The Bears had no shot whatsoever with Santos attempting an impossible 65-yarder in Pittsburgh. Indoors in Detroit or Minnesota? Maybe. Remember, even Ravens kicker Justin Tucker’s NFL record 66-yard walk-off in Detroit needed a friendly bounce off the crossbar — and Tucker has a bigger leg than Santos.
I didn’t understand Nagy’s decision to kick the field goal at all. And the fact that it ended Santos’ franchise record field goal streak makes it even harder to accept.
4. A few pleasant surprises
On paper, the Bears’ chances of slowing down Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris did not look promising, but they ended up limiting him to just 62 yards on 22 carries.
In a welcoming development, nose tackle Eddie Goldman played very well. He’s been largely quiet this season, but really made an impact Monday night. Akiem Hicks also looked closer to his regular dominant self before suffering an ankle injury in the second half.
On offense, wide receiver Allen Robinson easily had his best game of the season, even though he only caught four passes for 68 yards. He averaged 17 yards per reception and had two other catches negated due to silly penalties at the line of scrimmage. The slot fade he ran on the 39-yard catch-and-run on the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter was probably the best route he’s run all season.
The chemistry between Robinson and Fields remains a work in progress, but there were positive signs in Pittsburgh. And like I said before, there’s a lot of football left to be played this season.
5. Special. Teams.
Returner Jakeem Grant’s fumble was an absolute killer, but credit the defense for forcing a punt and getting the ball back to the offense. The Bears would not have got back in the game if not for Joel Iyiegbuniwe’s forced fumble on Ray-Ray McCloud and DeAndre Houston-Carson’s scoop-and-score.
The Bears are also getting very close to blocking a field goal. Xavier Crawford, in particular, has been dangerous on the edge. In fact, his pressure may have contributed to Chris Boswell’s missed extra point late in the third quarter because the kicker pulled the kick away from the pressure after Crawford posed a threat all game. Keep an eye on that going forward.
6. The weird David Montgomery debate
One of the oddest fantasy football debates over the weekend involved David Montgomery’s workload as he returned from injured reserve. Head coach Matt Nagy has been very quiet regarding injuries this year, but he did all Montgomery managers a favor by essentially announcing Saturday that his starting running back would return. More importantly, he stated earlier in the week that when Montgomery returned, he would assume his normal workout.
In other words, he told you all to put Montgomery back in your fantasy lineups.
Both items were heavily reported and yet there was still an odd assumption before the game that Montgomery and rookie Khalil Herbert would split carries. As it turned out, Montgomery played a season-high 85 percent of the snaps and received 15 touches to Herbert’s four.
7. An encouraging sign for Teven Jenkins
One of the more encouraging developments for the Bears came pregame when rookie offensive tackle Teven Jenkins went through a rigorous workout at Heinz Field.
You can read more details about the workout here, but it sure seems like Jenkins could return to practice soon, perhaps after the bye. He has not practiced since the offseason as he recovers from back surgery.
Working Jenkins onto the field could be interesting challenge because left tackle Jason Peters has been the team’s best offensive lineman and rookie right tackle Larry Borom shouldn’t be taken off the field.
For now, Jenkins just needs to get back in shape and regain his strength. It will be a bonus if he’s able to get on the field in 2021.
8. Adjusted second half prediction
I did not expect the Bears to win Monday night and felt like they were headed towards a 3-6 finish in their last nine games before heading to Pittsburgh. I have to say though, I feel a little more encouraged about their final eight games now — which is saying something considering how sloppy they played at times against the Steelers.
Things change though if you have a legitimate quarterback. It gives you a chance to win games you shouldn’t win. In two weeks, we’ll be treated to a matchup between Fields and Lamar Jackson and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bears have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.
I’m still inclined to predict a 3-5 finish the rest of the way, but 4-4 wouldn’t completely surprise me.
As bad as things looked at halftime Monday night, I started to wonder if the Bears’ game in Green Bay on Dec. 12 would be in danger of being flexed out of primetime. NBC loves itself some Bears-Packers in primetime, but the Bears are in a stretch of four national TV windows in six games and the first half performance was not worthy of such attention.
And then things changed with Fields in the second half. Again, he changes everything. Regardless of the overall record, Bears-Packers games always rate well and now NBC gets to feature one of the hottest rookies against Aaron Rodgers, who might be the biggest villain in the NFL right now.
10. Bye week goal: get healthy
Coaches will rarely tell you that a bye week comes at a bad time and the Bears can certainly use it right now. It will give the defense a chance to rest up, as Khalil Mack (foot), Eddie Jackson (hamstring) and Hicks (ankle) could all be back against the Ravens. With Robinson dealing with a hamstring injury now too, the bye will only help him as well.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bears come back as a stronger football team in two weeks against the Ravens.