Justin Fields’ 1st TD — and the team’s Week 1 win — show how to turn an ugly day into something beautiful – Twin Cities
Before the Chicago Bears’ biggest gain in Sunday’s 19-10 upset of the San Francisco 49ers, their offense was out of rhythm. Disjointed. Stuck.
The Bears didn’t cross midfield until 2 minutes, 48 seconds remained in the second quarter. They didn’t score on their first six possessions. They didn’t complete a pass beyond the line of scrimmage until their second play of the third quarter. And on their first 34 plays during a wet and sloppy afternoon, they averaged 2.2 yards.
A beauty pageant this was not.
“Rough sledding,” coach Matt Eberflus said.
Then came the magic moment. Third-and-long from their 49-yard line deep into the third quarter. Justin Fields took a shotgun snap but was quickly surrounded after both offensive tackles were beat. Less than two seconds into the play, playground chaos erupted.
Fields escaped with a spin to his left, used his speed to buy time, then settled at his 40 when he spotted Dante Pettis as the lone body in a sea of green.
“I was just supposed to sit there in the zone,” Pettis said. “But I broke back out because there was nobody there. … When I saw Justin set up to throw to me, I was like, ‘OK. Let’s go.’ The ball felt like it was in the air forever.”
Fields threw a high-arcing pass back across the field to the most open receiver he might ever see. Pettis did the rest. The final 30 yards on the 51-yard touchdown pass came after the catch, an untouched sprint across Soldier Field’s south goal line.
“That was the play that changed the momentum of the whole game,” Fields said.
Added Pettis: “We definitely felt that.”
That touchdown wasn’t by design. Far from it. And the Bears offensive performance as a whole was, to put it nicely, far from pretty.
The Bears averaged 2.7 yards per rush while netting only 105 passing yards. You might not find another NFL team all season that sputters like that offensively yet leaves the stadium with a two-score win.
But football can be a quirky game. Sometimes it’s as much about well-timed breaks, improvisational playmaking and taking advantage of an opponent’s mistakes as anything else. And as these Bears look for catalysts to accelerate their growth, perhaps they will find fuel in their ability to hang around in games, to limit game-changing errors, to remain mentally steady through prolonged struggle and to hit a few momentum-shifting big plays.
The Bears’ first touchdown of the season could prove symbolic for the mission the organization faces. When things are a mess, just try to make something happen.
Celebratory Slip ‘N Slide dives for everyone.
Here’s our comprehensive Week 1 QB review.
If the touchdown pass to Pettis helped unlock the offense, Fields’ 18-yard scoring strike to Equanimeous St. Brown with 12:45 remaining gave the Bears control of the game. It provided their first lead of the season — one they wouldn’t relinquish.
The play was designed to be a play-action pass in the flat to fullback Khari Blasingame. Yet the mechanics of the play put the 49ers defense in conflict and gave Fields options.
The Bears quarterback sold his play fake to running back David Montgomery, sucking the defense up. Then with Blasingame blanketed to the right, Fields moved to St. Brown as his second read on a corner route.
Wide receiver Byron Pringle also was wide open and would have had a walk-in touchdown had Fields made it that far in his progression. Fields said Pringle was his fourth and final read, though, and when he recognized the sharp angle St. Brown had found to gain separation from safety Talanoa Hufanga, the rest was easy.
See. Set. Throw.
“I just hit him for the touchdown,” Fields said.
With touchdowns on back-to-back possessions, the Bears had momentum with a charge of energy pulsing through Soldier Field.
On the bright side
As the Bears claw to stay competitive this season, they have to take care of the ball consistently while also limiting penalties. To that end, the offense was impressive Sunday. It turned the football over just once, on a woeful Fields interception in the first quarter — more on that shortly — and committed only one penalty, an intentional delay-of-game infraction with 2:37 remaining that the 49ers declined.
Other than that? Nothing. Not a single false start. No holding violations. No ineligible men downfield.
When Eberflus talks about establishing a foundational floor, he is emphasizing his players’ ability to play with maximum effort and supreme focus. Those are qualities that will give this team a chance and keep morale steady when things aren’t clicking.
That was another notable element of Sunday’s game. Even after a miserable first half offensively, the Bears never seemed like they were pressing.
That’s a credit to Fields’ mental toughness and the way his calm confidence steadies those around him.
Pringle spent his first four seasons in Kansas City and likened Fields’ contagious composure to that of Patrick Mahomes.
“I loved his composure throughout the game, from the first (quarter) to the fourth,” Pringle said. “He knew it was four quarters we have to play, not just one half.”
Bears fans know as well as anyone it can be incredibly difficult to pull a struggling quarterback out of a funk within a game. Fields perhaps has different DNA in that regard.
“That’s just being a pro, that’s being a vet,” Pringle said. ‘That’s a big leap — especially for a second-year player. I know you’ve probably seen other players pout or get down or point fingers behind closed doors. But he just kept his composure and was able to lead the offense and orchestrate it the correct way.”
Fields’ interception was a real no-no, a misguided throw forced into heavy traffic on third-and-7 and easily picked off by poaching safety Hufanga.
Fields was targeting Darnell Mooney and explained after the game that against the 49ers’ “vision-and-break” defense, he was focused on steering linebacker Fred Warner with his eyes to the right toward St. Brown, who ran a hook route. But Fields failed to hold or steer Hufanga, who made a decisive break on the pass and had an easy pick.
“I’ve got to read the squeeze off of that and just make a better decision,” Fields said.
Tight end Cole Kmet happened to be open 3 yards short of the line to gain, but Fields didn’t recognize Kmet as his best bet until after the fact. That’s the kind of error the second-year quarterback is vowing to eliminate as he conditions himself to better understand his risk-reward calculus in the NFL.
While the league’s best quarterbacks make their money on third down and inside the red zone, Fields also is growing in his understanding of batting averages at this level.
In Sunday’s postgame media session, he noted that a third-down conversion rate of 48% is often good enough to lead the league or at least be near the top.
“So I’ve just got to not force anything down the field,” Fields added. “Boom. Just take the check-down (to Kmet) and maybe he catches the ball before the sticks and breaks a tackle and gets the first down. I’ve got to be smarter and, of course, just know who I’m playing and just take the odds.”
Odds and ends
- While the Bears offense played a penalty-free game, the 49ers defense offered 59 free yards on six flags. One of those penalties came three snaps before the 51-yard touchdown pass, a costly 15-yard facemask penalty against linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who grabbed Montgomery’s facemask as the running back was being stopped for no gain on third-and-4 at the Bears 34. On the Bears’ next possession, the 49ers helped fuel the touchdown march with a defensive holding violation by cornerback Charvarius Ward, again in a situation when the 49ers were getting off the field with a third-down stop. Three snaps later, a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty against Azeez Al-Shaair for a diving helmet-to-helmet hit on a sliding Fields pushed the Bears to the 49ers 26. Credit the Bears for accepting the gifts and capitalizing.
- The best teams show a consistent ability to score on broken plays with quarterbacks who can skillfully ad-lib and teammates who can take advantage of those moments. Through that lens, the 51-yard Fields-to-Pettis touchdown is, at minimum, a positive step. But that play also was aided by the downfield blocking of St. Brown, who found 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley after the catch and blocked him to clear a path for the final 15 yards of Pettis’ run. The way the Bears offense was functioning to that point, there was little guarantee they would have reached the end zone had Pettis been tackled on that play. St. Brown’s determined block might have been worth at least four points and no doubt was highlighted for the team by Bears coaches. “Something Coach always puts out before every team meeting is finishing,” Pringle said. “And finishing for the guys around you, not just yourself. So that was great that EQ came through.”
- Sunday’s rain was steady and at times unrelenting. There’s no doubt it played a factor in both teams struggling to get going in the passing game. Fields noted that with the heavy rain in the forecast early in the week, he spent time at practice wearing gloves on both hands and throwing wet footballs. On Sunday he tried to go without gloves initially but quickly changed his mind because of the wetness of the ball. “It wasn’t even the rain,” Fields said. “The ground was just so wet from the rain earlier that it was safer to go with the gloves.” Fields praised center Sam Mustipher for a superb afternoon snapping and said it was inconsistent knowing when he would have a firm grip and ability to throw a normal ball and when everything would be slicker. “Some throws you have full control (of),” Fields said. “And then some throws, the ground is so wet that you don’t have as much grip. It just differs every play.”
- If Fields spent part of his preseason lobbying officials to give him more protection by way of personal foul flags against defenders who hit him late when he’s sliding, the narrative that he’s treated unfairly in that regard should start to relax. He got two such calls Sunday, including one on a first-quarter run in which he began to slide a fraction of a second before he ran out of bounds near the Bears bench. He was hit ever so slightly by Greenlaw, who appeared to make an effort to dive over and past Fields but got hit with the 15-yard punishment anyway.
- Mooney’s lone catch was an 8-yard quick-game reception in the fourth quarter. He was targeted three times in Fields’ 17 passes. He was blanketed by Ward on a deep shot immediately before his only reception and never really had a chance to make that big play. Assuming the Bears get better weather and field conditions Sunday night at Lambeau Field, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy will have to seek ways to get Mooney unlocked.