Justin Fields isn’t judging his progress by the numbers.
When it comes to the final four games, the Chicago Bears’ prized rookie quarterback wasn’t about to list any specific benchmarks he wants to hit.
“I didn’t really have expectations coming into the season,” he said. “I’m taking it day by day. You know I didn’t put a number on how many touchdown passes I was supposed to have, this and that.”
Fields’ arm and mobility have the Bears thinking he can develop into an elite quarterback and stabilize a position that has haunted the founding NFL franchise.
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The former Ohio State star also has room to grow and could be tested when Chicago (4-9) hosts Minnesota (6-7) on Monday night. The Vikings, after all, tend to give rookie quarterbacks headaches.
“Justin’s seen some defenses that like to bring it and he’s seen some that are a little calmer, and this one here, when they get you in certain situations, they’re going to attack you so it’ll be good for him,” coach Matt Nagy said.
The Vikings in eight seasons under coach Mike Zimmer and his long-lauded defensive strategy are 7-3 in games against a rookie starting quarterback, including 7-1 since the start of 2017. They beat Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears twice that season. In those 10 games, the rookies have averaged just 179 yards passing per game with a total of only seven touchdown throws and four rushing scores. The Vikings have totaled 10 interceptions and 27 sacks.
Their defense has fallen off sharply over the past two seasons from the standard set under Zimmer during his first six years, as players have aged and priced themselves off the roster and the front office has missed on some early round draft picks.
They still led the league in sacks through last week with 41 even though they’re missing their top two pass rushers, with defensive end Danielle Hunter out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle and defensive end Everson Griffen on indefinite hiatus for mental health treatment after recently confirming he has bipolar disorder.
Fields has experienced ups and downs in a season where he began as the backup and became the starter after Andy Dalton was injured in the second game.
There was the Week 3 debacle at Cleveland in which he threw for 68 yards and got sacked nine times for 67 yards. The offense delivered one of the worst performances the NFL has seen in that lopsided loss.
Fields regrouped and delivered a string of solid outings before breaking his ribs in a Week 11 loss to Baltimore.
His return in a loss at Green Bay last Sunday night was a mix of promising flashes and missteps. He had some neat moments while throwing for 224 yards and running for 74 more after missing back-to-back games with broken ribs. He also had an interception returned 55 yards for a touchdown by Rasul Douglas as Chicago fell for the seventh time in eight games.
Fields has been picked off 10 times this season and thrown for six touchdowns. The Bears are 2-7 in his nine starts, and the Vikings could pose a difficult challenge.
Well-disguised blitzes have long been a hallmark of Zimmer’s scheme, and Harrison Smith is at the center of that, whether sneaking up for a well-timed rush or backing off the line at the last second to drop into coverage. The 10th-year standout was at his best last week against Pittsburgh with his third sack of the season and the game-saving play in the end zone to force a last-second incomplete pass.
“For you to feel comfortable to actually line up on the line of scrimmage and, when the ball’s snapped, to turn and run and get the depth back that you’re supposed to have — at the same time as fast receivers are running full speed toward you — it’s very rare,” co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. “So what he can do, not a lot of guys can.”
The Vikings no doubt have the potential to make Fields very uncomfortable in his second straight primetime start. And the Bears could be without both starting tackles.
Left tackle Jason Peters is out with an ankle injury, and right tackle Larry Borom’s status was unclear after he went on the reserve/COVID-19 list during the week. With Peters out, Nagy said rookie Teven Jenkins likely will make his first career start. The second-round draft pick struggled last week after the two-time All-Pro Peters left the game.
A patchwork line could make Fields’ job that much more difficult.
Then again, he has the mobility to help compensate and avoid the pressure. Fields ranked fourth among quarterbacks with 385 rushing yards, and he doesn’t panic when opponents close in on him.
“You just see a very positive, consistent player,” center Cody Whitehair said. “We all know what Justin can do. He’s very talented. But I just love the poise that he brings.”