One of the better Christmas gifts that Chicago Bears wide receiver Dante Pettis received last weekend came in the form of coverage confusion from the Buffalo Bills. It happened on the eighth play of the opening drive Saturday when Pettis motioned from the right, settled next to tight end Cole Kmet in the left slot, then sneaked uncovered into the corner of Soldier Field’s north end zone.
Fellow receiver Byron Pringle carried outside cornerback Dane Jackson with him on a skinny post route. Slot cornerback Taron Johnson failed to account for Pettis and had his eyes fixated on quarterback Justin Fields. Safety Jordan Poyer had little chance of making up ground on Pettis.
Wide open. Pitch. Catch. Six-yard touchdown.
“I kind of stuttered a little bit,” Pettis said. “And BP did a great job of taking the corner and getting him out of there. I don’t know if they were supposed to pass that off or what, but when BP got right up on that corner’s toes, he had no choice but to go with him. And their nickel dropped me and it left me open. Easy touchdown.”
Pettis then paid that gift forward, sprinting east behind the end zone to find his family in the front row. With the proper amount of holiday cheer, he delivered the football to his older brother Kyler, then headed back to the sideline to celebrate the Bears’ 7-0 lead and review a well-designed, well-executed scoring play.
Alas, that was about the only thing the Bears offense had to celebrate in a 35-13 loss, their only trip into the end zone in their eighth consecutive defeat. Short-handed yet again, the Bears wandered outside their thin margin for error and finished with only 209 total yards, their lowest total in a Fields start since the Week 1 monsoon win over the San Francisco 49ers.
It was a day full of missed opportunities and shaky execution amid frigid, windy conditions. And it closed out the 2022 portion of the Bears schedule with another dose of disappointment.
Two division games remain. With whatever players the Bears have left, their offense will have to grind toward finishing the season on an encouraging note.
Here’s your Week 16 QB rewind.
Saturday’s game was still well within reach when linebacker Nick Morrow picked off Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the fourth quarter and returned it to the Buffalo 18-yard line.
Down 21-10 with possession inside the red zone, the Bears had a golden opportunity to seize momentum. But their subsequent drive netted only 1 yard and left them to settle for a 35-yard field goal from Cairo Santos.
On first down, a swing pass to Khalil Herbert was stopped for a 2-yard loss.
On second down, David Montgomery’s inside run was stuffed for no gain.
On third-and-long, Fields’ attempt to turn a passing play into a chain-moving scramble was thwarted when a quartet of Bills defenders kept him from getting into open space and stopped him for a 3-yard gain.
“We have to find a way to finish better,” guard Michael Schofield said. “And that’s been the story of our season, right?”
For the second consecutive week, the Bears defense came up with three takeaways. But the offense converted those into only three points.
The Bears also had a first-half drive that began inside the Bills 40 after a successful punt-and-pin situation and a solid punt return by Pettis. But that possession also ended with a Santos field goal when the offense could muster only 19 net yards and one first down.
Over the last two games, the Bears have scored only 10 points off six turnovers.
“It’s tough on our part, seeing (the defense) play such a good game and take the ball away as many times as they did and us not capitalize,” Fields said. “We have to do a better job capitalizing on those opportunities.”
Over a four-game stretch from Weeks 7 through 10, the Bears experienced an offensive explosion, averaging 31 points and enlivening a fan base that believed this was the new normal, that a high-scoring offense had arrived in Chicago and was here to stay.
But in Fields’ last four starts, the Bears have averaged just 19 points with nine touchdowns and five field goals in 43 true possessions, excluding end-of-half kneel-down situations.
The loss of key players to injuries has been a significant factor, of course. But this offense still has a long, long way to go to become a consistently explosive unit that wins games on its own.
The Bears need better protection, more team speed, an addition of game-changing playmakers to the huddle and continued development by Fields to make that happen.
Fields enters Week 17 as the NFL’s No. 7 rusher with 1,011 yards and a chance to run down Lamar Jackson’s single-season rushing record for quarterbacks of 1,207. But Saturday’s seven-carry, 11-yard output was the latest hint that until the Bears find more offensive balance, defenses will scheme to limit Fields as a runner and dare the Bears to beat them other ways.
In Week 11, the Atlanta Falcons used a mesh-charge approach to defending the Bears in the read-option game, essentially forcing Fields to hand the ball off as often as possible and challenging the Bears running backs to carry the load instead. Fields still racked up 85 rushing yards on 18 carries in that game. But he took a beating, battled cramping and wound up injuring his left shoulder on his penultimate rushing attempt.
The Bills had a similar mindset and challenged their defensive ends to stay wide, aiming to persuade Fields to hand the ball off or keep him from getting to the edge. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier also chose to frequently spy Fields, adding a level of insurance.
“It was a great display of disciplined football,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said.
Fields’ longest rush was a 7-yard scramble on the first play. After that he had only two other scrambles for 4 yards and three designed runs that netted 0 yards. (Fields also was credited with a rush for no gain on an aborted play when he recovered a fumble on an errant shotgun snap from Sam Mustipher that resulted in a 7-yard loss.)
Yes, weather was a factor with the cold and wind significantly limiting both passing attacks. But there continue to be signs that the Bears must evolve as an offense while prioritizing Fields’ growth in the passing game to take the necessary steps to compete in 2023 and beyond.
“The reality of it is I’m not going to be running for 100 yards every game,” Fields said. “When a defense does a good job of taking my legs away, then my job is to take a defender with me or maybe take two with me and allow the running backs to work.”
On the bright side
The Bears’ longest play was a 44-yard completion from Fields to rookie Velus Jones, a deep shot down the right side of the field that Fields cut loose with little hesitance and all sorts of zip. The pass whistled through the wind — and drifted a bit — but dropped right into Jones’ hands in front of the Bears bench.
The Bears used play action out of a three-tight-end set to give Jones that big-play opportunity.
“Velus is fast,” Fields said. “And I’m glad he finally got to use his speed.”
On a day when gusts up to 35 mph often caused the football to flutter in unconventional ways, Fields was asked if he felt like he had control on that pass.
“I had control,” he said. “Like right before the play, I threw some grass up to see which way the wind was blowing and adjusted to the wind.”
He was kidding. But it was an impressive throw under any conditions and gave Fields his 15th completion of at least 30 yards this season.
“The way that ball cut across the field, I knew I was going to have to chase it down instead of it coming to me,” Jones said. “And I did a pretty good job with it. … Great throw by Justin. Just a great throw. He put it away from everybody (on the defense) so I could go grab it.”
That completion pushed Fields past 4,000 passing yards for his career and was the latest evidence that he has a big arm and big-play hunger as a passer.
It was also a big moment for Jones, who has had ball-security issues and difficulty grasping assignments and concepts well enough to carve out a bigger role in an offense thirsting for playmakers.
The catch was just Jones’ sixth of the season but provided a surge of energy.
“I always had confidence in myself,” Jones said. “But when the opportunity comes your way, make a play. Hopefully we can keep that going.”
Odds and ends
- The Bears’ game-opening touchdown drive — eight plays, 64 yards — included two of the offense’s three longest plays. The first was a 20-yard Fields completion to Pringle that was the latest example of Fields maintaining patience and keeping his eyes up as he rolled to the right outside the pocket. Those are the moments the coaching staff will celebrate as it continues to foster Fields’ growth. Montgomery followed with a 28-yard run on the next snap. And even after Montgomery’s 1-yard touchdown run was negated by a Larry Borom holding infraction, Fields and the offense showed resilience to finish off that possession with the scoring strike to Pettis.
- Fields had his right foot stepped on by linebacker Matt Milano while making his final pass of the afternoon, an out-of-the-pocket desperation heave that should have been intercepted by either cornerback Tre’Davious White or safety Damar Hamlin. Fields had to go immediately to the medical tent, was held out of the Bears’ final possession and said afterward he was having difficulty putting much weight on the foot. “I’ll be good to go,” he said. Fields also acknowledged that he aggravated the left shoulder he separated in November against the Falcons. “They told me it was going to be a nagging injury all year,” he said. “So you have to fight through it the best you can.”
- As for the idea of the Bears taking the ultracautious route of sidelining Fields for the final two games to take him out of harm’s way, coach Matt Eberflus gave that an “Absolutely not” stamp Monday. “Because we’ve got to get better,” Eberflus said. “We want to improve. We want to see where we are. These last two games matter. They’re division opponents and to us it’s very important to see the competition and to see guys compete against our division. It’s important for each man, it’s important for each unit and it’s important for our whole football team.”
- Through 15 games, the Bears passing production remains concerning. Assigning accountability for the persistent struggles is complicated, but here are the statistical facts: The Bears rank 32nd in the league in passing yards per game (136.5) and have topped 150 net passing yards in only five games. They also rank last in interception rate (3.7%), 30th in sacks allowed (50), tied for 20th in touchdown passes (17) and 23rd in passer rating (85.6). It’s possible to embrace the impressive growth Fields has made as a quarterback throughout this season while acknowledging that the offense has a long way to go to be in position to win games on a regular basis.