On the final play of the Chicago Bears’ final drive Sunday, Justin Fields hit the top of his five-step drop but didn’t see anything he liked downfield. The Bears had three receivers in pattern plus a seven-man protection to help against a Detroit Lions blitz.
The Lions created pressure anyway and nothing immediately caught Fields’ eye. He hopped back, then shuffled right. By that point, the entire afternoon was in scramble mode.
Like only Fields can, the Bears quarterback eluded linebacker Alex Anzalone and tried to reset in the pocket. But then he had to dodge edge rusher Julian Okwara and elude Anzalone for a second time.
He was successful too. Until Okwara jumped back to his feet, got his arms around Fields’ shoulders and, with some help from defensive lineman John Cominsky, flung Fields to the Soldier Field grass for an upset-sealing sack.
Once again, the Bears hopes of a game-winning drive and belief-building victory disappeared. That loss of 10 yards on fourth-and-8 ended their latest opportunity to succeed in a critical late-game situation.
The Lions, who arrived at Soldier Field 707 days removed from their last road victory and entered the fourth quarter behind by 14 points, stole a 31-30 victory. It was the Bears’ sixth loss in the last seven weeks.
“You have to be able to overcome things,” coach Matt Eberflus said.
For the fifth time this season, Fields and the offense had the ball late in the fourth quarter with a chance to engineer a tying or winning drive and couldn’t get it done.
“We’re putting up 30 points a game,” Fields said afterward. “So just finish when we get those late-game drives.”
His dissatisfaction was shared, particularly by a group of offensive players who have become irritated with their collective inability to flourish with games on the line.
“That’s the biggest frustration,” receiver Darnell Mooney said. “Every game has come to that last moment where we have the ball. If we can’t do things to make people respect us and fear giving us the ball back, then what we can do?”
The Bears surpassed 28 points for the fourth consecutive game and totaled 408 yards. Fields again provided a flurry of “Wow!” moments, rushing for 147 yards and two touchdowns and throwing two touchdown passes to tight end Cole Kmet.
It was difficult to determine which of Fields’ splash-play touchdowns was more invigorating — his 50-yard toss to Kmet late in the third quarter or his exhilarating 67-yard dash on a zone-read play in the fourth.
At this point, Fields’ highlight-reel exploits have become when-not-if events. And for many Bears fans, that right there is the juice, the only storyline that really matters.
Fields and the offense have made extraordinary growth since September and now are producing on an every-week basis. But inside the locker room, that doesn’t alleviate the sting that accompanied the latest missed opportunity.
Center Sam Mustipher was asked how he handles the mixed emotions of seeing the offense improving in its overall production while failing to add the exclamation point with a victory.
“I don’t know that I’d describe that we’re seeing the bright side of this,” he said. “It’s football. There are no moral victories. Where we’re sitting right now is not where we want to be. At the end of the day, if we have to score 45 points to win a football game, then that’s what we need to do.”
Added tight end Ryan Griffin: “When the game’s on the line, we have to be at our best. We have to look in the mirror and see if we’re doing everything we can to be prepared for those moments.”
Sunday’s loss was a total team effort with costly errors across all three phases. A list of the most critical mistakes included but was not limited to these:
- A holding penalty against rookie left tackle Braxton Jones that derailed a productive opening drive and led to a field goal.
- Kicker Cairo Santos missing a fourth-quarter extra point that wound up being the difference.
- Rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon getting hit with a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for pushing Lions quarterback Jared Goff out of bounds. That aided the Lions’ first fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
- Cornerback Jaylon Johnson being called for an iffy hands-to-the-face foul against receiver Trinity Benson that negated a fourth-quarter interception by Jack Sanborn with the Bears ahead 24-10. Lions running back D’Andre Swift scored on a 9-yard run on the next play.
On top of that, the Bears defense failed to record a takeaway for the second consecutive game.
Fields’ worst mistake came with 10:38 remaining and the Bears ahead 24-17. On a screen play to Kmet, Fields didn’t like what he saw initially, then scrambled and tried to force a lob to his tight end near the right sideline.
It was a poor throw and a worse decision. Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah intercepted the pass and returned it 20 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
“Just a dumb play,” Fields said. “I can assure you that will never happen again. For the rest of my career.”
It didn’t take long for Fields to make up for that blunder. Three snaps to be exact. That’s when he broke loose up the middle, topped 20 mph on a dead sprint and had enough gas to cross the goal line on the longest run of his career — the 67-yard touchdown that electrified the home crowd.
Magic like that can’t be taught. And the Bears are blessed to have it. The floor for Fields and the offense has risen significantly over the past month, erasing any debate as to whether Fields is a capable starting quarterback.
Still, if he is to become the championship-caliber star many in Chicago already have coronated him as, eventually the offense has to get over the hump of being able to execute at a high level in the fourth quarter of close games, particularly through the air. Which means Fields has to complement his incredible running ability with reliability as a passer.
He completed only 2 of 6 fourth-quarter passes for 13 yards Sunday. That’s not an isolated incident either. In the loss to the Miami Dolphins a week earlier, Fields had 27 fourth-quarter passing yards and only two completions for 4 yards in the final two possessions with the game in the balance.
In the Bears’ seven losses this season, they’ve had 19 possessions that started in the fourth quarter and managed just one touchdown and 12 points.
Fields’ fourth-quarter passing numbers for the season: 27 of 51, 229 yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions, 12 sacks and a 51.8 passer rating.
Fields was asked what has been missing late in games that otherwise has been present throughout the last month.
“Execution. Just finish,” he said. “Pretty simple. I think that’s the next step for our offense.”
Mooney knows that with all the steps the offense has made in the last two months, that next one will require dogged effort and sharp concentration.
“In the NFL, most games are close,” he said. “When we have the ball late, we have to be able to be dominant with our two-minute (offense) and in the fourth quarter and at the end of these games. In practice, we dominate in that area.”
The Bears can only hope the game-day breakthrough is coming soon. Until then, the conversation on the state of the team and the promise for the future will remain muddled.