Justin Fields

Early returns show Bears, Justin Fields improving on deep passes

There are signs things are crisper at minicamp this year

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The Bears set out to jump start their passing attack this offseason, and early returns show they’ve made strides that could lead to more big gains.

Pretty much any way you slice it, the Bears passing offense was one of the worst in the NFL last season. They had the fewest passing yards (2,598), fewest passing first downs (109), third-lowest completion percentage (59.2%) and took the fourth most sacks (58). 

All of that is bad, but one of the biggest problems is that they were hardly explosive. The team only managed 38 passing plays that went for 20+ yards, which was fourth-fewest in the NFL. It’s not like the Bears were close to the best in the league, either. Top tier offenses like the Chiefs (78), Eagles (63) and Dolphins (62) were significantly more prolific at gaining chunk plays than the Bears. Even teams not necessarily known for blowing the tops off of defenses were in a different strata, like the Patriots (57) and Texans (55).

What’s even more concerning is that Justin Fields was better at throwing deep balls than anything else. The Bears just couldn’t find ways to capitalize upon them. According to PFF, Fields made 13 “big time throws”ー or passes with “excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window”ー on passes 20 yards or deeper. He had none to any other part of the field. If you’re into PFF grades, Fields earned an 84.0 grade on balls thrown 20+ yards. Much better than his 68.1 grade on throws between 10-19 yards, or his 59.3 grade on throws between 0-9 yards.

So what gives? For a variety of reasons, Fields and his receivers just couldn’t connect. A 10% drop rate on those passes didn’t help. Other times receivers couldn’t create enough separation which allowed defenders to swat the ball away harmlessly. There was chatter that wide receivers would be in the wrong places as people continued to learn Luke Getsy’s system. In all, Fields ended the year with a 35.3% completion rate on deep passes. Among QBs who threw at least 50 deep balls, you guessed it, that was one of the worst completion rates in the league. Sixth-worst to be exact.

The Bears know it’s a problem, so they’ve set out to fix it this offseason. 

“You've gotta back them off you,” said Matt Eberflus. “When teams line up in single-high or they line up in single coverages, we're going to take our shots.”

The team added playmakers like DJ Moore, and rookie speedster Tyler Scott. They also made additions on the offensive line with Darnell Wright and Nate Davis, and reshuffled others like moving Cody Whitehair to center and Teven Jenkins to left guard. The idea is that if Fields has better protection for longer, the team will have more opportunities to hit on deep shots.

We can’t judge the offensive line changes yet, because the team has yet to put on their pads. Without real contact it’s not fair to assess pass rush or pass protection. We can see the Moore effect however. Fields and Moore have developed chemistry quickly and connected for several big gains over the course of the early summer program. Other targets like Cole Kmet and Dante Pettis have popped. Part of that is explained by Fields being more comfortable in year two of Getsy’s offense, but part of that comes back to the Moore effect again. When Moore’s on the field he demands attention from the top defenders. That’s Jaylon Johnson when he’s on the field. And when Moore takes on the top guy, that allows others to rep against players further down the depth chart. That effect will translate to Sundays.

At OTAs and minicamp we’ve seen fewer deep balls falling incomplete. On the whole, the deep passing game has looked more effective at this time this year than it did over the same time period last year. Even when the Bears aren’t connecting, Fields is still happy with the process.

“Especially with DJ, you know, his first year here, just taking shots, just taking chances. It doesn't matter if it's complete or incomplete now, of course. Just trying to get on the same page. Talk, communicate with him and hopefully we're seeing the same thing when it comes to where the leverage of the corner is and just different details and stuff like that.”

A lot needs to go right for the Bears to make big strides as an offense, but if Fields and the new cast around him can continue to build on their early deep ball growth it will help the team score more points more often.

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