1/2 (1 TD)
1/1 (1 TD)
3/4 (2 TD)
6/7 (1 TD)
8/10 (1 TD)
19/22 (2 TD)
Outside the Pocket: 1/3
Under Pressure: 3/5
Red Zone: 1/2
3rd/4th Down: 3/3 (2 conversions)
Forced Adjustments: 3
It’s rare that a quarterback can have one of their least inspiring performances of the year and still have played well by any other reasonable measure. Ohio State sophomore quarterback Justin Fields is rare.
In one of his “worst” games of the year, Fields missed just three of 22 passing attempts, maintained 8.5 yards per attempt, and threw two touchdowns to zero interceptions. He was clinical in his dissection of Penn State’s defense, making nary a mistake throughout the entire performance. Even without many of the explosive or flashy plays he usually pulls off, Fields dominated Penn State in convincing fashion.
Fields’ brilliance is rooted in a number of skills, but his ability to fix every situation to his advantage allows him to consistently find positive plays. Namely, Fields’ mobility and savvy in using that mobility make him a menace to deal with. Whether it’s taking off to run or bailing the pocket to look for options down the field, Fields is privy to the best way to extend plays when they don’t go right immediately.
Penn State’s defense comes out in a conservative two-high defense with three pass-rushers on 3rd-and-11. Their primary goal is to not allow Fields any chance to throw at or beyond the sticks, which is generally the correct and normal approach for a 3rd-and-long defense. With Fields, however, it’s never about defending just one thing. If a defense keys heavily on taking away the pass, Fields can pick up yards with his legs, or vice-versa. In this example, Fields finishes his drop back and takes one small hitch before realizing nothing is open and he is being pressured. Fields continues to climb the pocket, shrugging off an arm tackle attempt from the edge rusher looping around behind him. As he is trying to regain his balance from the broken tackle, Field is met by a Penn State linebacker who comes off his coverage assignment to rush. Fields stops on a dime and redirects up the field to weave past another defender on his way to a first down.
It should be reiterated that Fields isn’t a runner by inclination. When Fields breaks the pocket or is forced to move, seldom is he looking first to run. Likewise, he almost never breaks the play intentionally to run. In instances where Fields is presented a favorable chance to run, he takes advantage of it after exhausting as many passing options as possible. Fields wants to be a passer as often as he can, but he’s too talented and sharp to not pounce on clear rushing opportunities.
Here’s an example of Fields using his athleticism to extend his passing opportunity instead of taking off. Ohio State appear to full slide their protection to the right, which allows for a free rusher to come off the left side. Depending on the play call, this can be by design with the idea that the quarterback becomes responsible for the free rusher. The quarterback knows he then either has to throw hot or be ready to bail, as Fields does this time. Fields senses the rusher immediately and flips his shoulders around to bail out of the left side of the pocket. Being able to flip one’s shoulders like this to bail the pocket is quicker and more efficient than opening one’s hips in that direction because it allows the quarterback to pick up speed while moving directly away from the defender. Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Lamar Jackson are just a few quarterbacks who excel with this trick. Once free from the blitzer, Fields climbs back up to the line of scrimmage with his eyes down the field. The Buckeyes quarterback finds a crosser cutting from right to left and hits it on the sideline for a crucial first down.
Fields makes plays like that look easier than they are. To understand that he is responsible for the free player, flip his shoulders to bail the pocket, then climb to reset for the throw is not a sequence of actions that many quarterbacks can pull off consistently. For Fields, it’s a standard part of his game and just a portion of why the “floor” for his game is so high. Fields’ mobility and understanding of when and how to use it is top notch.
Another reason for Fields’ high floor and consistency is his willingness to throw around bodies in the pocket. While Fields can move around as he did in the previous two clips, Fields also shows no reservation in planting his feet to deliver a strike, knowing that he is about to get popped by a 260-pound defender.
The receiver in this clip is wide open, but Fields has a defender barrelling down on him and the throw is to the far sideline. It’s not necessarily an easy throw just because the receiver happens to get good separation. What sticks out beyond Fields’ willingness to throw with bodies around him is how he does not allow his mechanics to be compromised in fear of getting disrupted. Fields makes sure to keep his hips and feet geared toward his target, for one. He does not shy his base or body away from the defender. Additionally, Fields follows through with his throwing motion and snaps the ball out at the end, rather than fading away from the motion and letting the ball sort of ease out of his hand. Fields makes sure to snap the ball out at the cost of keeping his chest exposed to a hit from the defender.
This time, Fields isn’t preparing to take a shot to the chest like in the previous example, but he is still clearly under pressure. Fields is forced to the left before climbing up in the pocket to find a crevice with which to cleanly throw from. The reset does not deter Fields from keeping his eyes down field, nor does the pass rusher within arm’s reach to his left deter him from ripping the throw. Fields manages to get out a good throw that hangs well enough for wide receiver Chris Olave to go up and get it, but the sophomore receiver doesn’t come down with it despite getting a clear shot at it before the defensive back. This one doesn’t end up complete, but Fields took all the right measures to set up this throw and put it in a good spot for Olave to comfortably work back to it.
That Fields can be under pressure and still make fantastic throws speaks to his talent and problem solving on the fly. There is not a pocket that Fields can’t figure out how to throw from, be that through him resetting to find space or battening down the hatches to make a throw while getting hit. When Fields is kept clean in the pocket, though, he ascends to an unparalleled level of efficiency and ball placement. It’s no surprise he is the only player in the country with more than 200 attempts and one interception.
Fields gives this ball the perfect arc and placement to land just over the outside shoulder of the outside shoulder. Slot fades like this almost always require a throw placed on the outside because the cornerback tends to play inside leverage and/or gets help over the top from a safety, both of which happen in this play. Fields manages to throw the ball with enough sauce to make sure the receiver never has to break stride, while placing it over the receiver’s outside shoulder away from the defenders to ensure the defensive backs can’t get a piece of it. The receiver is able to lean toward the sideline and haul this one in with ease, putting the Buckeyes out to a three-score lead.
For Fields, NFL Draft talk is still another season out. Fields is just a true sophomore and won't be able to declare until the 2021 draft, when he and Clemson's Trevor Lawrence will likely duke it out for the No.1 spot -- same as they did when they were recruits coming out of high school.
The conversation for Fields should instead be about the Heisman trophy and his ability to lead Ohio State to a national title. Fields is battling his own teammate, Ohio State EDGE Chase Young, for the Heisman trophy, but among quarterbacks (who almost automatically win the award now), Fields is the second-best choice at worst. Though LSU QB Joe Burrow may have a slight edge on him right now, Fields' mistake-free decision making and value as a runner may tip the scale in his favor, especially with a strong showing over rivalry weekend and through the conference championship circuit.
Heisman or not, Fields is easily capable enough to win a title at Ohio State this year. Not only is Fields playing exceptional, turnover-less football, but Ohio State's defense is the top unit per ESPN's SP+ metric. The defense keeps Ohio State's offense in comfortable spots almost all the time and Fields capitalizes by slamming his foot on the pedal. Fields has an opportunity to stamp his mark on college football this postseason and be the future franchise changer everyone is talking about throughout the offseason.