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Column: As Justin Fields makes his 1st start for the Chicago Bears, a look at the ‘roller-coaster journey’ of a rookie QB from 3 perspectives

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 28 days ago
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Rusty Lisch played in seven games during the Bears' 1984 season. Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune

Rookies from the deepest draft for quarterbacks in some time are off to a rocky start.

Five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round in April, only the third time in league history that has happened, and the Chicago Bears’ Justin Fields will become the fourth from that group to start when he takes over for the injured Andy Dalton on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Houston Texans third-round pick Davis Mills made his first start Thursday night in a loss to the Carolina Panthers, making rookie quarterbacks 1-6 so far. The only victory belongs to the New England Patriots’ Mac Jones, who outdueled No. 2 pick Zach Wilson and the New York Jets last week.

Fields’ performance with the Bears won’t be judged by wins and losses. More instructive will be how he plays in Year 1 and the kind of growth he shows with experience. The organization could get to the end of the season with another .500 record, even a little worse, and feel very good about the future. Maybe Fields will spark the offense and the Bears will be better than that.

Coach Matt Nagy has gone from answering a lot of Fields questions with Dalton as QB1 to answering Fields questions nearly nonstop. We’ve heard about every imaginable angle in the lead-up to this game. Fields has had three practices with the starters, and the Bears hope he’s building chemistry with teammates .

“There’s little things we’re learning,” Nagy said. “Like this week, with him getting all the reps in practice, there are things we’re seeing that maybe we didn’t see in the first two weeks. That’s healthy because now ... we take that to him and say: ‘Listen, when you do this, this or that, this is what you’ve got to get a little bit better at. This is what you’re doing well. Let’s go back and watch the tape and see why we were a little bit late on this throw.’

“He’s building blocks of a foundation of how he’s getting better. That’s the beauty of him having these great reps in practice, which is what he wasn’t getting. Now he has an opportunity to do it.”

Other prisms are useful for considering a rookie quarterback’s first start. Here’s a look at three other perspectives:

The head coach/play caller

Todd Haley, former Bears wide receivers coach, Kansas City Chiefs head coach and Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Browns offensive coordinator

“That has been the interesting thing this year, how teams are handling the rookie starters,” Haley said. “Fields hasn’t been starting, and coming in halfway through a game is a little bit difficult because you definitely have two different plans for him and Andy . But I’m watching Trevor Lawrence, and the Jaguars don’t look like they’re trying to help the kid. In preseason, I heard Nagy say a couple times, ‘We do what we do.’ No, Dalton has a certain skill set and is a certain kind of quarterback. Justin is a totally different one. You can’t just plug him in. They know it’s going to be Justin this whole week. I was hoping to see in the preseason different stuff when Justin was in there and I didn’t see it. I just saw the same plays they had been running. The RPO game has to be big. There has got to be quicks and movement.

“Now, in the preseason they had nakeds, but those types of nakeds that he threw back to Jesse James, that’s a dream in the regular season when someone is game planning, as are some of the runs that he had. I think the Browns will have a plan of attack for how they want to rush him and contain him to the pocket. So you’ve got to do things to get him on the edge. That’s where his strength is right now. He’s got a long way to go as far as reading defenses. He missed that easy Sam/Mike blitz against the Bills and he got hit in the face. Matt Leinart did that and had his collarbone broken in Arizona, and that’s like the easiest blitz there is. He missed it completely. So he’s got a long way to go just to be a drop-back guy, and his strength is buying time, creating space with his feet and then running.

“You’ve got to be really specific with what he’s comfortable with, what he does well and then just do some of those things over and over again. You can change the formation and run the same play. Just memorizing the plays is a difficult task, but he’s a pretty smart guy. There’s just a lot on the plate of a young guy and then going on the road in addition to that, now you’ve got a silent count. I would expect to see a more spread attack with a lot of RPOs and some play action.

“This week, you sit down and say, ‘Hey, what do you love?’ And then you do a lot of that because if he’s uncomfortable, it’s not going to go well. He needs to be comfortable. We did it with Baker (Mayfield in 2018) and we went back to Oklahoma film and said: ‘What are the three or four plays you love? Tell us about them. What was the read? How did you handle them?’ Then we had to decide if it was something we could fit in versus an NFL defense. Some did and some didn’t, and the things that did, we tried to use some of that because he was comfortable.”

The opposing defense

Matt Bowen, seven-year NFL safety who played for Washington in Kyle Orton’s first start for the Bears as a rookie on Sept. 11, 2005

“You want to make Justin read it out from the pocket post-snap,” Bowen said. “You want to use a lot of late rotation in the secondary to show him one thing pre-snap and force him to read the safety rotation post-snap and understand what coverage he’s now getting that he didn’t see before the snap. The second thing is pressure. What type of pressure? It’s one thing to say we’re going to pressure a rookie quarterback. Can you be deceptive in doing so where you can bring simulated pressure and he doesn’t know where that fourth rusher is coming from? Is he coming from the second level or the third? Make him read empty protection. Where does he have to throw hot? Who is he responsible for that cannot be accounted for in the protection because we’re bringing more than they can block? You have to give him different looks outside as well because he has to know how wide receivers have to convert their route based on the look of the cornerback.

“Any defense I was on, when we played against a rookie QB, we installed new pressures and new looks. You’re not re-creating your defense but you’re taking your split-safety coverage and playing it differently to take away one of their top routes. That’s the kind of thing a rookie hasn’t simulated in practice. Now he’s going to see it for the first time, and you’re going to force him to read it out with speed to understand where to go with the football.”

Bowen saved all of the game plans from his playing career and pulled out the file for the Week 1 game against the Bears in 2005, a 9-7 Washington victory at FedEx Field. Orton completed 15 of 28 passes for 141 yards with one interception. He was sacked three times and lost a fumble, and the Bears offense totaled only 166 yards.

“It’s really interesting,” Bowen said after reviewing Gregg Williams’ game plan. “We were more zone-heavy. We wanted to make him throw the ball into contested windows, make him read it, see it with a lot of late rotation and movement and throw the ball into tight windows. We played more single-high because we thought with a rookie in his first start, they would try to get the ball out of his hands quickly so he could get from (read) one to two and not even worry about three. We really put numbers in the middle of the field. We played a lot of Cover-3 variations. We played 3-Robber with the safety spinning down late as a hook defender. We played 3-Match with the safety carrying the inside vertical. We played 3-Buzz with our safety playing different robber positions in the middle of the field because we didn’t want to give Orton those high-percentage, middle-of-the-field throws.

“If he wanted to throw inside seams or verticals, we were going to have someone match it to take that away as well. In terms of the pressure, A-gap pressure because he was a pocket thrower and we weren’t going to give him the ability to step up and move in the pocket. It might be the opposite for Fields because he’s an elite athlete and can get to the edge of the pocket and really hurt you. So if I was game planning for Fields in terms of pressure, I would give the disguise of A-gap pressure, walk my linebackers up and get the quarterback or center to set the protection and use stunts and games where I can loop guys to the edge so when Fields does try to break contain, I can have a free runner working up the field to collapse that edge against him.

“We played 2-Read — we used to call it ‘Gold’ under Gregg. What that did was give an illusion. Corners on the outside would read No. 2 and if he ran an out route, the corner would jump it immediately and the safety would carry No. 1. We were trying to set traps for Orton, and that’s one thing I would do against Fields as well. It’s the illusion of complexity. You’re not creating new schemes but taking your existing ones and being deceptive with them.”

The plan to challenge Orton with contested throws worked. Washington had 10 pass breakups in Orton’s 28 attempts, with former Bears cornerback Walt Harris getting three.

The front office

Mark Dominick, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager (2009-13) and director of pro scouting (1997-2008)

“Ideally,” Dominick said, “I think the way they wanted it to happen was to watch the results on the field and slowly insert Justin in situations to get some work and then hand the reins over to him once they felt comfortable enough he’d had enough action. It didn’t happen that way. It’s a little bit more of a forced situation, which isn’t what you want, but it is what it is. Now the most important thing I can tell fans is they’ve got to be patient because he may come out and have a great week and then have a terrible week.

“There certainly is going to be a learning curve. Peyton Manning struggled mightily during his rookie season. There are not a lot of them that go out there and say, ‘I’m going to light this thing up,’ and it’s easy. There is going to be that roller-coaster journey. The big thing you’re looking for from a front-office perspective is his leadership at a young age. How does he command the huddle? How does he handle everything in terms of pressure. Being able to get that feedback from coaches on gameday is a big point of where you think this thing might head.

“You don’t want to limit Justin and just dink and dunk everything and get the ball out. You want him to progress and be challenged. I know Coach Nagy knows that and can do that. You want him to use his feet. You want him to be the athlete they drafted as well as the quarterback they drafted. That’s part of his appeal and I am assuming the Bears are going to fit that in.”

Scouting report

Nick Chubb, Browns RB

Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.

Nick Chubb, 5-11, 227 pounds, is in his fourth season after the Browns drafted him in the second round from Georgia in 2018. He enters Sunday’s game sixth in the league with 178 rushing yards in two games and is tied with Derrick Henry for the league lead with three rushing touchdowns.

A Pro Bowl selection each of the last two years, Chubb has scored a rushing touchdown in eight consecutive games. He’s already sixth on the Browns’ all-time rushing list with 3,735 yards and he has big-play ability with 103 carries of 10 or more yards since his rookie season and 34 carries of 20-plus yards.

“He’s a top-five back in the NFL,” the scout said. “He doesn’t have elite pass-catching traits, and that is why they brought Kareem Hunt in . If the Browns are in a crucial down and distance and need to get a first down, they’re going to have Chubb in the backfield. He’s got excellent vision and great body control and lateral juice. He can run with power and he’s got the ability to shift gears once he gets into the second level. I wouldn’t put him in a class with Derrick Henry in terms of being physical, but who is? Chubb is a physical runner and he’s an ideal fit for the offense because he’s an excellent zone runner.

“They’re using more power schemes in Cleveland, and when you give this guy a road map with a fullback or a tight end on a pull in front of him, he’s going to set up the blocker, accelerate through to the second level and then you’ve got major problems because he’s going to force your defensive backs to tackle. I wouldn’t be surprised against the Bears corners, especially opposite Jaylon Johnson, if they put (Kindle Vildor and Duke Shelley) in positions where they have to make the tackle. Whether the Browns block down on the edge or crack inside on the safety and tell that corner, ‘OK, you’ve got a number and you’ve got a number and now you’ve got to tackle Nick Chubb in space.’ ”

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