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Chicago Bears: Reviewing Justin Fields' Week 2 performance
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Chicago Bears: Reviewing Justin Fields' Week 2 performance

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Ariel and Ben preview what is in store for Chicago as Justin Fields is set to make his first career start for the Bears in week 3

There’s no turning back now. (Unless there eventually is.)

Justin Fields is the Week 3 starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears. (We presume. Probably.)

Matt Nagy wouldn’t say any of that directly Monday morning, a day after the Bears slipped past the Cincinnati Bengals 20-17 at Soldier Field. But that’s the likely direction this is headed. For this week at least.

Andy Dalton suffered a left knee injury in the second quarter of Sunday’s win. And while, according to Nagy, Dalton didn’t tear his anterior cruciate ligament, an educated guess says the injury — which NFL Media reported as a bone bruise — will be significant enough to keep the 33-year-old quarterback out for Sunday’s game in Cleveland.

If that’s the case, the door opens for Fields to become the starting quarterback. And once that door opens, would there be any point for the Bears to push Fields back outside and reclose it once Dalton is fully healthy?

Depends on whom you ask. Or perhaps when you ask it.

Nagy acknowledged Monday that he and his coaching staff must begin the process of getting Fields ready to start this week as they await full word on Dalton’s diagnosis. But when Nagy was pressed on whether Dalton would return to the starting role whenever he’s healthy, the messaging got a little murky. Here’s that exchange.

Tribune reporter Brad Biggs: If Andy is healthy, is he your starter?

Nagy: If Andy is healthy, is he your starter? That’s something I’m not going to get into with scheme.

Biggs: That’s not scheme.

Nagy: Of course it is. That’s 100% scheme, Brad. That’s 100% scheme.

Nagy was asked a similar question in his postgame news conference Sunday afternoon about whether Dalton would remain his top choice to start when healthy enough to play.

“I’m not going to get into that,” he said.

Yet minutes after Monday’s news conference ended, a Bears media relations spokesman returned to the Halas Hall media room and told reporters Nagy had misunderstood the line of questioning and intended to say Dalton would be the starter if healthy.

Bengals Bears Football

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, left, chats with Chicago Bears quarterback Andy Dalton, right, prior to an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Chicago. 

Suddenly, the water became muddier and Bears fans had new uncertainty to shout at each other about. So much for the surge of excitement that came with Sunday’s win in the home opener, a mostly encouraging performance propelled by a hungry defense.

Now the Bears are back where they always seem to be, sifting through confusion at the most important position and either unsure of how they want to handle things, in disagreement on the matter or simply ham-handed and unclear with their messaging.

Welcome to the Week 2 installment of QB rewind.

Defining moment

We’ll get back to the Bears’ handling of the Dalton-Fields situation shortly. There’s a ton to unpack there. But let’s dial in for a moment on the win-sealing scramble Fields made to help keep an energizing win from becoming a crushing loss.

It came with 2 minutes, 55 seconds remaining and the Bears protecting a 20-17 lead. The Bengals had turned a rout into a nail-biter with a pair of touchdowns 56 seconds apart. Fields had contributed to the mess with a woeful interception deep in his territory on the previous possession.

Even as well as the defense had played, the Bears absolutely did not want punt the ball back to the Bengals for a potential game-tying or go-ahead drive. The tension inside Soldier Field was escalating.

Bengals Bears Football

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields walks the field against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday in Chicago. 

Facing third-and-9 from their 26, the Bears remained in attack mode with a passing play. And when nothing came open, Fields fought off a diving sack attempt by Trey Hendrickson in the pocket, then scrambled and outraced edge rusher Cam Sample for 10 yards and a crucial first down.

“It’s nice to have that,” Nagy said after the game.

For full context, it’s important to point out that the offense should have put the game away long before that. During a second-half surge in which the defense created turnovers on four consecutive possessions, the offense missed its opportunity to go for the jugular.

Angelo Blackson’s interception with 8:06 remaining gave the offense possession inside the Bengals 10 with a chance to pad a 14-point lead. The Bears, however, settled for a four-play, 5-yard field-goal drive.

Far worse, of course, was the interception Fields threw with 3:43 remaining as he misread a blitz and had a pass to his hot read picked off by linebacker Logan Wilson. The Bengals needed one snap to turn that blunder into a gift-wrapped touchdown, closing to within three points late in a game in which they had been thoroughly outclassed.

After the game, Fields said he correctly identified Cover-0 from the Bengals on the play but wasn’t anticipating Wilson floating into his passing lane.

“They popped out the linebackers right where I was supposed to throw the ball,” he said. “So I really can’t do anything about that. I’ve just got to move on.”

Nagy was pressed Monday for further detail on what Fields needs to see on that play to avoid the turnover.

“(Wilson) did a good job of rushing, then dropping,” Nagy said. “They were in Cover-0. The corner that’s over Marquise (Goodwin) is in a trail technique against a guy who runs pretty fast. Justin was working through his progression.

“Again, it’s another opportunity for him to just learn. Right after the ball came out, he knew it. He felt it. … These are different looks that he’s going to get, and we just want to prepare him as much as possible to understand how that stuff goes.”

What’s the risk in starting an uber-talented rookie, you ask? What could possibly be the danger?

Bengals Bears Football

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields warms up before an NFL football game against the against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Chicago. 

Sunday offered several glimpses into the potential perils of turning Fields loose while he is still so green and inexperienced. Growing pains are inevitable for all rookie quarterbacks. Sometimes those growing pains can be harsh and carry major consequences.

With Fields now positioned to take over the huddle and, quite likely, begin a years-long journey as the Bears starting quarterback, everyone must be prepared for the upcoming turbulence, for the expected mistakes, for the shoulda-had wins that might in some weeks turn into irksome losses.

Fields will show flashes of his playmaking instincts every game. Those will be energizing and will provide evidence that he can develop into a championship-level quarterback. But the short term will include rough patches. And it’s up to everyone at Halas Hall — coaches, teammates, front-office executives — to find the steadiness to weather those patches. That won’t always be easy.

“We have to make it very normal for us to understand that if indeed he is the starter and the guy, there is going to be some of that,” Nagy said. “But then how do we help him with that? When the ball is snapped, we have to do everything we possibly can to help him really understand the play inside out.”

On the bright side

The Bears’ lone offensive touchdown drive came on the opening possession, an impressive nine-play, 75-yard march that ended with Dalton’s 11-yard pass to Allen Robinson. It was a tone-setting drive that allowed the Bears to play with a lead for the rest of the afternoon. And it was proof of why the coaching staff has such trust in Dalton’s experience and steadiness.

He converted three third downs on the possession, including the scoring pass to Robinson on third-and-5.

That was a fairly simple play design with the team’s top receiver winning his battle against Chidobe Awuzie and Dalton delivering an on-time, on-target dart.

Bengals Bears Football

Chicago Bears quarterback Andy Dalton scrambles during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Chicago. 

Previously on the possession, Dalton helped convert a third-and-12 from near midfield by escaping pressure in the pocket, stepping to the left and firing a shot down the left sideline that was almost completed to Goodwin but drew a pass interference flag on cornerback Eli Apple.

In the three series Dalton led, his pocket awareness was obvious.

It remains to be seen whether he ever starts another game for the Bears or if he’ll even have another opportunity to play a meaningful down. It’s within the realm of possibility that the Bears invested $10 million in free agency in Dalton and the biggest return on investment will be Sunday’s TD drive. But a long season lies ahead with 15 games remaining and likely several more major twists and turns.

In a game and a half, Dalton at least has shown the ability to run the offense with efficiency.

Uh-oh

The Bears’ developmental plan for Fields has been microanalyzed since Day 1 and has been maligned by fans and talking heads for months. This Week 3 situation only adds to the confusion, with the Bears expressing continued confidence in Fields’ growth rate but still hesitant to proclaim him as their starter going forward.

Maybe Monday’s bungled messaging was simply a strategic ploy to trick the Browns defense into spending too much time preparing to face Dalton on Sunday. Or maybe Nagy is truly conflicted on what the best move is here.

That’s where this whole saga has the potential to get really tricky really fast. And that’s why, as early as the late spring, concerns were expressed within league circles that a lack of clarity surrounding Nagy’s job security could affect the coaching staff’s decision-making process at quarterback, leaving it to balance an ideal long-term plan against self-preservation instincts.

George McCaskey’s ongoing silence on what he specifically wants to see from the 2021 Bears to feel confident in Nagy’s coaching and general manager Ryan Pace’s oversight is significant, particularly if that lack of clarity remains inside the most important offices at Halas Hall.

If, for example, Nagy feels pressure to win at least 10 games this season in order to keep his job, then maybe it is in his best interest — and the best interest of the 2021 Bears — to keep Dalton as the starter. The steady veteran will avoid game-losing mistakes and allow the team to remain competitive behind a talented and opportunistic defense.

But if the Bears are doing as they always promise and making every decision with the organization’s best long-term interest in mind, then it might make much more sense to push Fields onto the field soon to accelerate his learning through playing experience.

Bengals Bears Football

Chicago Bears' Matt Nagy walks the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Chicago. 

The likelihood, as is so often the case in the NFL, is that the Bears don’t have full control over the timeline anyway. Dalton’s knee injury seems certain to thrust Fields into the starting role this week, far sooner than Nagy envisioned or wanted.

But once Fields is in that role, there seems to be little sense in taking him out of it. That kind of revolving door would only raise justifiable questions regarding the team’s confidence in its talented rookie. And to this point, Fields has continued to gain the trust of his coaches and teammates.

“He’s probably further along than we thought at this point right now,” Nagy said Sunday. “If (Fields has to start), we feel good about it. He’s worked really, really hard to get to this point.”

Who knows? Maybe Nagy’s original vagueness — and the subsequent clarification from the media relations director — provides an opportunity for the Bears to turn back to Dalton weeks from now if Fields has pronounced struggles and looks overwhelmed. Through that lens, the Bears wouldn’t be benching Fields. They simply would be reinstating their healthy starting quarterback into his original job.

But let’s be honest. That seems like a pretty far-fetched scenario.

All of this can be so darn head-spinning — and overcomplicated. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Bears remained vague with their starting quarterback proclamations in the back half of last season after Nick Foles suffered a hip injury late in a Week 10 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

After a bye week, Nagy was initially vague in declaring that Mitch Trubisky would return to the starting role. Pressed in November on whether a decision to reinstate Trubisky revolved exclusively around Foles’ health, Nagy acknowledged there were nuances.

“There are a lot of factors involved in it right now,” he said. “We’re looking at all that. But for us, what we’ve got to do is we have to start with the availability. Otherwise, the other stuff doesn’t matter. … Are there other factors involved? Absolutely. That’s a part of (our discussions) and of us looking at everything from a bigger picture of where we’re at.”

It’s no different here. Until further notice, Dalton figures to be unavailable and Fields will run the show.

Odds and ends

With the Bears leading 17-3 and eager to capitalize on the short field provided by Jaylon Johnson’s fourth-quarter interception, Fields threw a deep ball to Robinson down the left sideline. It looked like it was going to be a 35-yard touchdown pass that would detonate a celebratory explosion at Soldier Field. Instead, Robinson had the ball slip right through his arms. It was a brutal misplay by a normally reliable pass catcher and prevented the Bears from running away from the Bengals.

On the next snap, Cole Kmet was flagged for offensive pass interference, and a drive that began in field-goal range at the Bengals 36 ended with a punt. Taking away Roquan Smith’s pick-six, the Bears offense scored only six points off three Bengals turnovers, an indictment of an offense that still has no real identity or consistency.

Fields was flagged twice on the same possession for false starts. Both infractions occurred on third down, the second one on third-and-goal from the Bengals 5 with Fields flinching with his back leg in anticipation of a shotgun snap that didn’t come. Nagy identified those penalties as communication issues. “If the play clock is running down, we have a mechanism that we can use,” Nagy said. “And you have to be clear with that. We have different cadences. We’re going to get the guys together and just talk through that and figure out the whys behind all that. Again, some of that is part of the growing pains, right?”

Through two games, the Bears have had great difficulty generating anything with their downfield passing game. They have thrown 64 passes and have only three completions of more than 15 yards. Their longest passing play of the season was Sunday’s 21-yard completion from Fields to Darnell Mooney late in the third quarter. Mooney, working out of the slot to the right, broke free past Bengals safety Jessie Bates III, and Fields dropped in a nice ball along the left sideline for a first down.

Nagy would have liked to see Fields push up more in the pocket on the 9-yard sack he took in the second quarter. Fields was taken down by Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, but he had plenty of air in front of him to climb the pocket and either look for a completion down the field or take off into open grass. Later in the game, Fields lost a fumble when Hendrickson got around the edge on left tackle Jason Peters. Nagy credited the Bengals for a terrific defensive play, but Fields also has to have better ball security. He fumbled because of a hit on the right shoulder from Hendrickson, and it almost became a defensive touchdown.

Officially, the Bears threw only one pass to a tight end, a Fields completion to Kmet for no gain on the final drive. Kmet had a 13-yard reception negated three possessions earlier when he was flagged for offensive pass interference. Officials ruled that Kmet pushed off to get free from safety Vonn Bell over the middle. It seemed like a ticky-tack call. Nagy said Monday he was bothered that he failed to get his tight ends into the action more. “That’s my fault for that,” he said. “I don’t want to say that’s never going to happen again. But that’s not enough.”

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