LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Despite their early-season offensive struggles, the Bears have remained steadfast in believing their process would eventually lead to tangible progress from quarterback Justin Fields and his unit.
That progress finally arrived Sunday when Fields went 28-for-35 for 335 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception in the Bears' 31-28 loss to the Denver Broncos.
It would be easy to view Fields and the Bears' success as a product of the Broncos' shoddy defense. The Broncos gave up 70 points to the Miami Dolphins in Week 2 and now have only forced one first-half incompletion in their last two games. That incompletion came on a Hail Mary attempt from Fields at the second-quarter buzzer on Sunday.
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Denver's porous defense undoubtedly played a role in the Bears' success Sunday. But the Bears saw a lot of positives from Sunday's offensive outing that they believe can translate to future Sundays.
The most important signs of offensive progress came on two touchdown passes from Fields, in which he used his athleticism to extend plays while keeping his eyes downfield before finding Cole Kmet and Khalil Herbert on respective scores.
"The Khalil one was pretty special, right," offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said Tuesday. "Just like mostly everybody is playing us, protecting the edges of the defense, and he did a great job of playing up, reacting to it and then creating space and time, right. So, you get in those low gold zone areas, and that's what we talk about all the time - QBs extending plays. I would imagine half the scores in the league come from that. He was able to do that, create some extra time, get some space, get the defense running a little bit, that was a really cool play to see.
"And then the Cole one was just, you know, we talk about small growth every single week. That's a good example of him playing the play to the end, trying to run to the pylon, and then making sure he is keeping the pass/run option available until the last second."
Both touchdown passes show something different.
The pass to Kmet showcased Fields' ad-libbing ability and how deadly he can be when his athleticism works in concert with his ability as a passer.
“You’re just trying to put the defense in a bind," Fields said of the pass to Kmet. "Of course, the defense is going to be paying attention to me running the ball as well. So I just tried to stretch the play out as long as possible, keep the play alive. Got the defense flowing to me late, thinking that I might try to run for the pylon real quick, and Cole was smart on that play, kind of kept himself open, stayed away from everybody, and then got the defenders to try to come and tackle me, and I just popped it right over to me. Just great execution by Cole, keeping the play alive, keeping himself alive to be able to make that catch for the touchdown.”
The Bears have worked with Fields on learning when to run to take off and when to run to extend while looking downfield. There have been a few instances early in the season when Fields failed to keep his eyes downfield and missed a big-play opportunity.
Sunday's improvisational play was proof of growth.
Growth is good. Consistency is paramount.
That's where the pass to Herbert comes into play.
Fields expertly navigated the naked boot with a free rusher on the touchdown to Herbert, but he later made a critical error on a similar play that cost the Bears in a three-point loss.
With the Bears up 28-21 in the fourth quarter, Getsy dialed up a naked boot, and Broncos linebacker Nik Bonitto came unblocked. Where Fields got 10 yards of depth on the touchdown to Herbert, he only got 7 on this play and could not step up to avoid Bonitto, allowing the linebacker to hit him and jar the ball loose. Broncos edge rusher Jonathon Cooper scooped up the fumble and took it back to tie the game at 28.
"We just talked about the goal line play was exactly the same thing," Getsy said of the strip sack. "Whenever you have what we refer to as a dirty edge, which pretty much every bootleg keeper that we have is a dirty edge, you have to come out high. When you see the rusher is high, you got to pull up. He didn’t do that on that particular one. He did that on the other one and created a touchdown for us. That’s part of the learning experience that you get in games and seeing everyone game plan for you specifically.”
Fields admits that much of what the Bears did against the Broncos won't translate going forward. Where most teams play zone against Fields, the Broncos played a lot of man coverage during the first half, and the Bears quarterback picked them apart thanks to some good scheming from Getsy.
But Fields does believe the Bears' attention to detail, protection, route-running, etc. -- all things they struggled with in the first three weeks -- can carry over.
Most importantly, Fields saw the Week 4 performance against the Broncos as a step toward the Bears finding out what they want to be on offense.
"I do think we took a step closer in finding our identity as an offense," Fields said.
Belief in Fields has waned early this season. He was handcuffed by poor playcalling in the season opener, struggled mightily in Tampa, and threw for just 99 yards against the Chiefs.
But two throws Sunday gave the Bears a glimpse into the possibility that still remains with Fields. The upper-echelon off-script playmaking ability that wins in today's NFL.
Now, it's about finding a way to make that the new normal and not a one-off.