LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- As good as the Bears' quarterback run game has been over the past month with Justin Fields, what happened Sunday was always a possibility. The more the Bears ran Fields, the greater the chance he would be in harm's way once defenses adjusted.
That scenario arrived Sunday in the Bears' 27-24 loss in Atlanta. The Falcons were prepared for the quarterback run game, blitzing the mesh point and playing a lot of quarters to bring an extra safety down into the run game. Fields admitted to having "heavy legs" after the Bears' Week 10 loss to the Detroit Lions, and he dealt with cramps during Sunday's game in Atlanta.
All that was a recipe to get Fields hit. A lot. Three weeks ago, Fields was fresh and able to use his speed and athleticism to avoid taking big shots. But he seemed a step slow Sunday in Atlanta, and the Falcons made sure he felt them.
Then came the Bears' final drive, where offensive coordinator Luke Getsy dialed up a QB sweep on first down. Fields ran left and was hit going out of bounds. He fell on his left shoulder after a gain of 1 yard. On the next play, Fields ran a draw up the middle, slid down, and was hammered late. But there was no flag.
The second-year quarterback suffered a left shoulder injury. His status is "day-to-day," but the Bears haven't ruled out a season-ending injury.
All that for 5 yards.
Excessively running your quarterback is a recipe for disaster. But the Bears don't have second thoughts about how they have used Fields.
"You got to balance that," Eberflus said Monday. "And I've said that since we started this, since that New England game. You got to be smart about what you’re doing. I’m still saying the same thing. You got to be smart. You got to stay out of harm’s way. And we’re constantly talking to him about that, because he is an aggressive guy, and he’s strong and all those things, but he is our quarterback.
"We got to make sure that he does get to the sideline and works himself out, and when he is on the middle part of the field, slide. He did a pretty good job of that yesterday, but he was in harm’s way a couple times."
That Fields spent part of the game dealing with cramps should have probably been a sign to the Bears to tailor back the quarterback run game. Instead, the Bears opted to run Fields to open the final drive, and the quarterback's inability to reach top gear might have played a role in him taking the hit that caused the injury.
Eberflus stands by Getsy's decision to stick with the QB run game on the final drive in Atlanta despite Fields' cramping issue and heavy legs.
"I thoughts we had it under control, the cramps," Eberflus said Monday. "We know he’s dealt with that before, because obviously he puts out a lot of energy during the game and we’re gonna call our plays that we think are the best there, so that’s what we did and we went with it."
As for the quarterback draw on second-and-9 with under two minutes to play, that wasn't the plan.
"That was a mistake," Eberflus said. "That was supposed to be a halfback draw. So, he was supposed to hand it off there. That was supposed to be [David Montgomery] going up the middle."
Fields took several big shots Sunday in the loss to the Falcons. Many came late or in an area where most quarterbacks receive protection from the officials, but Fields received no such help from the refs.
Bears rookie safety Jaquan Brisker was adamant after the game that the NFL has to start officiating Fields the same as other quarterbacks in the NFL.
Eberflus knows the Bears and Fields need to do a better job of protecting the quarterback, especially if the calls aren't going to come.
"We’ve just got to do a good job. I think we’ve got to look at it," Eberflus said of the hits Fields takes. "I think that we’ve got to protect these quarterbacks, and that’s including our quarterback. We have to do a better job in the league, the total league has to do a good job of that. Again, these guys are special. All these quarterbacks are special. We’ve got to do a great job of protecting them when they are on the sideline and when they are in the open field."
The Bears incorporating more quarterback runs into their offense was a good thing. It ignited the offense and got Fields into a better rhythm throwing the football. But once it was on film, the Bears needed to continue to evolve. Given how often Fields scrambles due to the Bears' bad offensive line, the Bears should keep the designed runs at a minimum.
Fields ran 18 times Sunday in Atlanta. Per Pro Football Focus, eight were designed runs, while six were deemed scrambles. The other four were considered rush attempts by PFF.
The more you run a quarterback, especially in the middle of the field, the greater the chance they take unnecessary hits, and you bring injury into play.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance suffered a season-ending ankle injury running QB power in Week 2. The 49ers had run Lance at a 1:2 pass-run ratio early in his career. Fields has been around a 1:3 ratio over the past month, give or take some decimal points based on your film service.
That's just too many opportunities to bring catastrophe into play.
The purpose of implementing the quarterback run was to inject life into the offense, get Fields some confidence, and use the threat of it to open up the passing game.
Instead, the Bears kept going back to the well, and eventually, it went dry. Fields is tough, but he can only take so much punishment. As his legs got heavy and defenses adjusted, the hits became more frequent until Sunday, when he crashed to the ground on his left shoulder.
If Fields does play again this season, the Bears have to do a better job of protecting him from defenders and himself. That starts with using the QB run game sparingly. As one of many tools, not your only hammer.
The Bears might not be willing to publicly admit the playcalling Sunday played a role in Fields' injury. But they need to be self-aware enough to realize it did and be willing to adjust it when Fields returns.
Protecting Justin Fields starts with not putting him in harm's way in the first place unless absolutely necessary. The future is too important to jeopardize his health in meaningless games in Year 1 of a rebuild.