Allen Park — Six weeks into this season, the Chicago Bears’ offense was a mess, averaging a measly 15.5 points per game. Most notably, second-year quarterback Justin Fields was struggling, with more interceptions than touchdowns, ranking last among qualified passers in completion percentage, bottom-three in passer rating and eating more sacks than any of his peers.
Having played Thursday night that week, and posting a season-low seven points in a loss to the Washington Commanders, the Bears took advantage of their extended break to do a deep dive into their woes and see what they could do to tap into Fields’ potential, particularly his dual-threat abilities.
“We had a chance to take a breath during the (break) and really figure out what we needed to do and needed to adjust what we’re doing well,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus told local reporters. “Some things we needed to tweak a little bit. No big changes, but some things to enhance our player skill sets, and I thought we did a good job with that.”
Three weeks later, the Bears quarterback is coming off his best game, albeit in a 35-32 loss to Miami. In that contest, he threw for three touchdowns without an interception and set the NFL’s single-game rushing record for a quarterback, racking up 178 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, earning the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week.
This is what the Detroit Lions will have to contend with when they travel to Chicago to face the Bears this week.
Obviously, based on the production against Miami, the biggest issue for the Lions will be Fields’ mobility. Through six weeks, he was averaging around 50 rushing yards per game, but in recent weeks, the team is incorporating more designed runs, utilizing concepts the Baltimore Ravens like to use with Lamar Jackson.
“It feels like you’re watching a little bit of DeShaun Watson in Houston, you’re watching Lamar Jackson, Baltimore, there’s a little bit of Jalen Hurts,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “Just very quarterback-driven runs, guard and tackle pulls, read the end, hand it off. These (running) backs are running hard, they’re downhill, and then there’s enough of the keepers off of it. There’s enough misdirection to the receivers. And then, certainly his ability on third down, that’s where they really got Miami was, man, there’s a number of third-and-8, third-and-10, there’s an opening in there and he takes it and he’s gone. And one of them for 60-something yards. So, that’s where he’s very lethal.”
The Lions have had their problems with mobile quarterbacks this season, even the ones who aren’t looking to run at this stage in their careers. Aaron Rodgers had two scrambles to convert third-and-long situations last week, Geno Smith posted a season-high 49 yards against the Lions in Week 4 and Hurts also had a season-high 90 yards in the Eagles’ Week 1 victory over the Lions.
In those games, one of Detroit’s biggest issues was getting loose with their pass-rush lanes, often slipping beyond the pocket and providing an escape route. That’s priority one this week when it comes to slowing down Fields.
“For us, it’s just condensing the pocket, making sure we don’t get past the quarterback and making sure that we have rush integrity with our rush lanes, not giving up easy seams for him to run, because he’s a hell of an athlete,” Lions defensive lineman Josh Paschal said. It can be hard (to not run past the pocket) because you want to trust your ability, but you have to put the team above yourself. It really all starts in practice. We’re getting reps working on condensing the pocket and making sure these quarterbacks in practice aren’t escaping the pocket. We’re being intentional about that in practice.”
Linebacker Alex Anzalone noted it will be best for Detroit’s edge defenders to stick with speed-to-power rushes, while resisting the instinct to counter inside if given the opportunity.
“You just have to crush the pocket,” he said.
In the second level, linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard has rejected the effectiveness of using a spy, because it takes a defender out of coverage without contributing to the pass rush. Still, Campbell said all options will be on the table, as Detroit mixes and matches its strategies this week.
“I think you’ve got to use a little bit of everything,” Campbell said. “Really, I think there’s a place to spy, I think there’s a place to pressure, I think there’s a place to really play more coverage and keep everything in front of you and then rally to it. So, I think it’s all-encompassing and a lot of that’ll have to do with third down. … But, I think there’s no easy answer to playing this guy because you see it all over the tape week after week. Certainly, something that we’re preaching and it’s the cast the net, close the net.”
Going deep into the defense, the Bears aren’t the only team that has made midseason adjustments. The Lions have similarly made some changes at the bye in an effort to rectify allowing the most points in the league. And while it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing the past three weeks, there were some encouraging signs, particularly against Dallas and Green Bay. Against the Packers last Sunday, the Lions’ defense limited the opposition to nine points.
The two biggest changes have come in the secondary, both of which should help in defending Fields. First, the Lions are playing significantly more zone coverage, which keeps the defense’s eyes in the backfield and helps them react to a quarterback bailing from the pocket. Second, the team has shuffled its personnel, finding more playing time for both cornerbacks Will Harris and Jerry Jacobs, two aggressive and willing tacklers on the perimeter.
Finally, the Lions know they’re capable of executing this week’s game plan because they did it last year, against Baltimore, when they largely held Jackson in check, outside of one 31-yard scramble.
“We did some things in that game that teams weren’t doing against him and you saw some of the stuff that we did stuck around because of how well we played him,” Anzalone said.
And while Lions safety DeShon Elliott, who was Jackson’s teammate the last four years in Baltimore, said Fields isn’t the same caliber athlete, he understands that the Lions will be in trouble if they can’t execute the plan to keep the Chicago quarterback contained in the pocket.
“We have to shrink the pocket, keep him from getting out,” Elliott said. “If we do that, we’ll have a good chance. If we keep him in the pocket, it makes it a lot easier for us. If we can’t do that, he’ll have another day with another 178.”