Immediately following the Week 3 debacle in Cleveland, the Bears knew they needed to make some changes to their offense.
Head coach Matt Nagy did that, turning over play calling to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Since then, the attack has been more run-heavy and the passing game has appeared simpler. The Bears aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, as it sometimes feels in a typical Nagy offense.
That has meant less of a mental load on their rookie quarterback. For a Bears team that is trying to walk the line between developing a rookie quarterback and winning now, that’s a plan that makes a lot of sense. Make it simple and limit the chance of mistakes.
“Every football player plays better when it’s simple,” Fields said Wednesday. “When I have to think less, when every football player has to think less, you’re going to play faster. They’re gonna play more instinctively, rather than having to think.”
Bears quarterback coach John DeFilippo said it’s all about making the decision-making process easier and more efficient. NFL offenses can be complicated. Different plays have different types of reads. In DeFilippo’s words, “there’s a lot going on.”
“We know by the end of the week, hey, is this a little bit heavy with decision making,” DeFilippo said. “For any quarterback, not just Justin, for any guy. And you take a few things off the call sheet.”
DeFilippo believes Fields is improving his second- and third-level throws, those intermediate and deeper throws. Even though the offense is simpler, Fields is still throwing aggressively. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Fields is second among QBs in “average intended air yards.” On average, his throws are traveling 9.7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, second behind only Lamar Jackson’s 10.1 yards.
The Bears found success against Detroit and Las Vegas with this version of the offense. They still rank last in the NFL in passing, but they did enough to pick up a few wins.
The question is whether it can work against the cream of the crop. Sunday’s 24-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers might’ve been the first test.
It was the perfect example of a rookie quarterback game. At times, Fields showed why the Bears thought so highly of him and why he was the 11th overall draft pick. He led the Bears on two nice, long scoring drives. But outside of those two drives, the offense was inconsistent. Fields made a few mistakes, not all of which were his fault.
The rookie is still learning when to break from the pocket and run, and when to just call it a loss and throw the ball away. He allowed four sacks and most of them were because he held onto the ball too long or waited too long to make a run for it.
Nagy sees a young quarterback who is still learning what he can and can’t do in an NFL game.
“We just want to be careful because, shoot, you could’ve said [throw it away] on his scramble at the end of the game where he ran for 20 [yards],” Nagy said. “Throw it away. The guy’s grabbing the back of his jersey. Throw it away. No, he beat that [defender] and he ran for 20. So, there’s a fine line.”
Avoiding sacks is going to be a huge part of Fields’ development. He has been sacked 18 times, which is tied for second in the NFL. A sack late in the second quarter Sunday pushed the Bears out of field-goal range when they could’ve tied the game up at halftime.
“He’s trying to make a play and those things happen sometimes,” DeFilippo said. “You never want to take a guy’s athleticism away from him. So you just got to be careful with how you address that.”
Since the Bears readjusted their offense following the Cleveland game in Week 3, Sunday was the first time they were forced to play from behind. Fields threw the ball more than he has all season, attempting 27 passes. He finished 16 for 27, for 174 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
The results were mixed. It’s plausible to think the Bears could be in a similar situation this week against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.