While there are still plenty of aspects to his game that need to be addressed, Justin Fields probably had his best performance of the season against the 49ers in Week 8.
Let’s start with the good. Fields’ athletic ability was on display throughout the afternoon. He finished with 103 yards rushing and a touchdown on 10 carries, often escaping trouble and turning nothing into something. No play was a greater example of that than his ridiculous 4th-and-1 touchdown run in the 4th quarter:
Fields also made several accurate throws on the run while moving to his left:
The ability to throw accurately while moving to the left is a critical one for Fields. While this was a designed pass, there will be times where defensive coordinators try to flush him from the pocket to the left with blitz pressure, where most quarterbacks become less of a threat to throw (making them easier to defend). It will be helpful for Fields to have answers and the ability to still be a dual threat on those occasions where he’s forced left.
The great physical plays shown above will allow Fields and the Bears offense to have some success while he refines the other parts of his game. But we’ve known about his athletic ability and physical talent for a long time. That was never a question. Playing the position with more precision has been. However, there were signs that he has that ability against San Francisco.
Take these two throws, both delivered with good anticipation:
You can clearly see from the screen shots below that his receivers had not gotten out of their breaks, yet Fields had already made his decision and started his motion:
These throws may have been clearly defined and safe throws to the outside, but that’s okay. It’s encouraging to see he has the ability to anticipate in him.
Also on display was better game management. Fields got the ball out quickly and accurately on some short but key 3rd-down throws. Here are a couple of examples:
These nondescript plays might seem unexciting, but keeping the offense on the field is essential for consistency. The Bears were 8-for-15 on 3rd down against the 49ers, another encouraging sign.
Now to the bad. Fields still has plenty of areas of his game that need refinement. He can be overreactive to pressure at times, and this leads to potential completions left on the field. Take this play for instance:
The white jersey color flashing in the A gap in front of Fields made him react, and he ended up moving into pressure as a result. His intended receiver did have a step on his man. Had Fields been more of a statue at the top of his drop, he would have given himself a better chance of delivering a precise throw. The better quarterbacks in the league connect on that play.
Other times, Fields took unnecessary sacks. Below was a 2nd-and-long where the objective was to try and cut the down and distance in half for a more manageable 3rd down. That’s why all of those short routes were called. Fields was targeting the #2 slot receiver to his left:
At the top of Fields’ drop, the defender was playing with a 5-yard cushion and still dropping. If Fields gets rid of that ball on time, that’s a completion:
In fact, on the anticipation throws shown earlier, we saw Fields complete passes further downfield with similar separation. For some reason, he didn’t pull the trigger here. It’s the little things that make the biggest difference at the quarterback position. That was an avoidable sack that set up 3rd-and-long.
This sack was avoidable too:
As you can see in the screen shot below, Fields had room in the pocket to make this throw. And the receiver he was looking at was about to break wide open to the sideline based on the way his defender was moving upfield and had turned his hips inside:
It would have taken good anticipation to complete this throw. And as we saw on the plays shown earlier, Fields has demonstrated that he has that ability. Where he struggles is when the field isn’t clearly defined or when there are added complications to the play, like slight pressure that forces him to move within the pocket.
There were other opportunities that Fields missed against the 49ers. On the play below, first look at the route combination. This was 4 verticals run from a 3×1 set with the outside receivers breaking off their routes in response to their defenders having leverage over the top:
The 49ers were playing Cover-3, which meant the two vertical routes in the middle were designed to target the deep middle safety. Fields either didn’t recognize the coverage and the opportunity, or (more likely) he decided to stay to the outside where the picture was cleaner and where he’s generally more comfortable:
The free safety moved with Fields’ eyes to the left sideline, which did open the seam route to his right. This shows that the opportunity to manipulate the safety was there. Had Fields looked him off to the left and then come back to the right, he would have found a wide open receiver for a big play. But instead, he stayed to the outside, didn’t throw it, and then scrambled for a minimal gain when he felt a little pressure:
You can also see from the end zone angle that he drifted left (unnecessarily) just enough to hit his left tackle’s foot with his foot. That led to the feeling of pressure and the quick reaction to flee the pocket. The subtleties of playing the position make all the difference in the world.
Right now, Justin Fields is still grasping how to play the position at a high level in the NFL. It was encouraging to see him bounce back from a dismal performance against Tampa one week earlier to have probably his best game as a pro. He’s improving, and there’s a lot of talent there for the Bears to work with.