The key to this matchup for Atlanta seems fairly straightforward, but Chicago quarterback Justin Fields has morphed into one of the league’s most dangerous players in recent weeks. That’s a development so impactful, it’s commanded two articles on our lovely site.
After a slow start to the season, during which questions about his future in the league loomed large, Fields has been unleashed in recent weeks due to an offense that has shifted to utilize his talents as a runner. With more designed runs that highlight Fields’s speed and open-field power, the Bears have begun to find a recipe for offensive success.
Through the first five games, Fields’s best rushing total was 52 yards on seven carries in a loss to the New York Giants. In the five games since, Fields has had no fewer than 60 rushing yards in a single game, and he’s gained a staggering 325 rushing yards on 28 carries in the last two weeks.
JUSTIN FIELDS IS ON A DIFFERENT LEVEL RIGHT NOW. pic.twitter.com/UYpFgtWkYj— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) November 13, 2022
Fields has also shown notable improvement as a passer in that stretch, although he’s still not a true threat to carry an offense with his arm alone. However, the combination of his running with his ability to extend plays with his legs only to flick the ball downfield for a big play forces defenses to cover the entire field. And if something breaks down, Fields can easily keep a drive going.
“That’s what they’ve been doing, they’ve been staying on the field, they shorten the game and he’s been a big part of it, design runs and then really the play extensions, those can be the back breakers,” Arthur Smith said of Fields and the Bears’ offense. “You get to third-and-7, you’re not disciplined in your rush lanes, guys fly up the field, breaking tackles and then he gets vertical and it’s a problem, and those long methodical drives and that’s what’s kept them in games.”
Despite the obvious uptick in Fields’s play in recent weeks, the Bears have lost their last three games. In those losses, however, Chicago’s offense has averaged more than 30 points. Defensive problems continue to plague the Bears, but Fields is beginning to give this team an identity that will keep them in the game late.
Entering Week 11, Atlanta’s defense ranks 18th in the league against the run, allowing 119.4 yards per game on the ground. With Fields at the helm, the Bears currently boast the NFL’s top rushing attack on both a per-game (201.7) and per-play (5.60) basis. For Atlanta to contain Fields, the defense will need to be sound in its run fits and seek to keep him in the pocket with proper rush-lane integrity.
That’s easier said than done, however.
NFL rushing leaders over the past 5 weeks:— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) November 14, 2022
1. Justin Fields, 555 yards
2. Derrick Henry, 515
3. Travis Etienne, 510
For their part, the Falcons have done a good job limiting the rushing output of opposing quarterbacks, allowing no more than 20 yards in a single game. As noted above, though, Fields is an entirely different challenge than, say, Joe Burrow, who gained 20 yards on three carries in Week 7.
The real interest in this game might be how the Bears choose to attack an Atlanta defense that ranks dead last against the pass. The Bears also rank last with 128.1 passing yards per game, but Fields has progressed with his arm, and the opportunities are presenting themselves through the air with teams focused on stopping him as a runner. Tight end Cole Kmet has been Fields’s favorite option in recent weeks, catching 13 passes for 158 yards and five touchdowns over the last four games. But with Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney waiting in the wings, there is some potential for the passing game to get going, even with A.J. Terrell returning for the Falcons.
What once looked like an easy task at the beginning of the season has become a daunting challenge in light of Fields’s recent ascension as one of the best runners in the league, which is lifting the Bears offense into one that is more dangerous than we possibly could have imagined over the summer. Atlanta has been hurt by explosive plays on critical downs in its losses this season, and few players are more apt to hit that specific nerve than Fields.
Any path to victory for the Falcons in this game will likely need to start with slowing down Chicago’s Superman.