1st-and-10: Matt Nagy focused on Justin Fields — and winningMark Potashon September 21, 2021 at 8:44 pm

Justin Fields vs. Joe Burrow figures to be a much more compelling duel the next time — in 2025, barring an unlikely Super Bowl matchup. But a moment in Sunday’s game served as a preview, when the two young quarterbacks both stepped up their game with a chance to win it.

It happened in the fourth quarter, when Burrow recovered from throwing interceptions on three consecutive passes to give the Bengals life. Including touchdown passes to Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, Burrow was 5-for-6 for 128 yards and a perfect 158.3 passer rating (up from a sickly 33.3 rating) to cut the Bears’ lead to 20-17 with 3:39 left.

With a zoned-in Burrow primed to apply the dagger, it was Fields’ turn to respond. On a critical third-and-nine with 2:55 to play, he dropped back, quickly scrambled, escaped a tackle attempt by Trey Hendrickson (with both hands on the ball this time — an improvement from the previous time Hendrickson got to him and forced a fumble) and scooted to his left for a 10-yard gain and a first down that helped clinch the game.

A suddenly red-hot Burrow vs. a suddenly vulnerable the Bears’ defense would have been interesting — and nerve-wracking for Bears fans who have seen that movie too many times before. In a similar moment just six regular-season games ago — with the Bears protecting a 30-27 lead over the Lions last Dec. 6 at Soldier Field — Mitch Trubisky was sacked and lost the ball on a third-and-four play that could have clinched the game. The Lions recovered with 1:48 to go and won 34-30.

Regardless of the culpability on the Trubisky fumble, Fields found a way to win this time — a facet of his first extended playing experience that was as important as any dart he threw — because if Fields starts in place of Andy Dalton against the Browns on Sunday as expected, it’s likely he’ll have to keep the Bears in playoff contention to keep the job.

While many, if not most, Bears fans would settle for Fields spending the rest of the 2021 season playing, learning and developing regardless of the Bears’ record, coach Matt Nagy is not likely to go for that. From a job security standpoint, the Bears in the playoffs is more valuable to Nagy than going 5-12 with a talented young franchise-quarterback-of-the-future showing promise.

And already, the NFL landscape looks like it will keep middling teams in the running. Two weeks into the season, there are only seven unbeaten teams. The Bears (1-1) are tied for the eighth-best record in the NFL. With seven teams making the postseason and the current state of the NFL, it’s likely a .500 record will keep you in the hunt.

Nagy has said he’ll do “whatever is best for the Chicago Bears” in managing Fields. Whatever that means, his top priority is winning games. Developing Fields is still No. 2. So Dalton can lose the job because of injury, but that likely will only happen if Fields is playing well — and winning.

2. If Fields starts against the Browns and Nagy eventually goes back to Dalton, he’ll point to Dalton’s encouraging performance against the Bengals. Dalton completed 9-of-11 passes for 56 yards and an 11-yard touchdown to Allen Robinson for a 118.2 passer rating.

And while his yards per attempt still was an unimpressive 5.1, it doesn’t include 32 yards he gained on a pass interference penalty on a pass to Marquise Goodwin. That would have bumped his yards per attempt to a more acceptable 7.3 and his passer rating to 125.0.

3. Fields’ inexperience showed in a relief appearance against the Bengals. But he had company last week. First- and second-year quarterbacks had a combined 58.8 passer rating in Week 2 (four touchdowns, 13 interceptions).

Experience makes a huge difference. Among starting quarterbacks who played complete games in Week 2, the top five in passer rating had an average of 159.8 career starts — the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (192), the Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes (48), the Buccaneers’ Tom Brady (301), the Seahawks’, Russell Wilson (146) and the Raiders’ Derek Carr (112). The bottom five had an average of 26.6 career starts — the Saints’ Jameis Winston (72), the Jets’ Zach Wilson (2), the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence (2), the Bengals’ Joe Burrow (12) and the Bills’ Josh Allen (45).

4. The Bears might not like the NFL’s emphasis on enforcing the taunting rule, but they’re indirectly responsible for it. Both Javon Wims and Anthony Miller were goaded into unsportsmanlike acts of violence in response to being taunted by Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson last season. And while the taunting rule itself seems silly, it’s that kind of escalation the league wants to curtail.

5. Left tackle Jason Peters played all 65 snaps against the Bengals after suffering a quad injury against the Rams. After two games, Peters is ranked ninth among tackles by Pro Football Focus — fifth in pass blocking and 30th in run blocking.

Peters suffered a dislocated finger on Justin Fields’ fumble in the third quarter, but popped it back into place and finished the game. At 39, he is the oldest player to start a game in franchise history.

“It’s mind over matter,” Peters said. “When your legs start to fatigue, all I do is get down in my stance and I talk to myself sometimes: ‘Get to your spot.’ Just doing stuff over and over and over. Your technique takes over when your body gets fatigued. If you don’t have the technique when you get fatigued, you’re gonna start getting beaten a lot.”

6. With all the analytics available, using the NFL’s game-book defensive stats to measure performance is crude — sacks, interceptions, tackles-for-loss, quarterback hits, forced fumbles and fumbles recovered. But they still tell the tale of the Bears’ response against the Bengals.

A week after the Bears had just six “impact” defensive plays against the Rams, they had 32 against the Bengals — four sacks, six tackles-for-loss, nine quarterback hits, three interceptions, eight pass break-ups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. That’s the most in one game since Nov. 11, 2018 against the Lions, when they had 36 in a 34-22 victory at Soldier Field.

7. Roquan Smith is emerging as the Bears’ best defensive player and one of the best linebackers in the NFL. But second-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson might be improving at an even faster rate.

Johnson had four pass break-ups against the Bengals for a league-leading five after two games. Since the beginning of last season, Johnson’s 20 PBUs (in 15 games) are tied for third-most in the NFL.

8. Bits & Pieces: The Bears are 0-for-5 (0%) on fourth-down conversions this season — the rest of the NFL is 39-for-81 (48.1%). … The Bears are 7-point underdogs Sunday. Their last victory as dogs of a touchdown or more was against the Steelers in 2017, when they won 23-17 in overtime at Soldier Field. … Their last road victory as underdogs of a touchdown or more was against the Packers in 2015, when they won 17-13 at Lambeau Field as 8.5-point dogs. … Allen Robinson’s 59 receiving yards (on eight catches) are the fewest in the first two games in the seven NFL seasons when he’s been healthy. He had averaged 129.5 yards after Weeks 1-2 before this season. … Tight ends Cole Kmet (one reception, zero yards) and Jimmy Graham (0-0) combined for one target against the Bengals. “They need to be more involved,” Nagy said. “That’s my fault.”

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Falcons running back/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson scored on a 10-yard run, caught a seven-yard touchdown pass and had a 27-yard kickoff return in a 48-25 loss to the Buccaneers.

10. Bear-ometer: 7-10 — at Browns (L); vs. Lions (W); at Raiders (L); vs. Packers (W); at Buccaneers (L); vs. 49ers (L); at Steelers (L); vs. Ravens (L); at Lions (W); vs. Cardinals (L); at Packers (L); vs. Vikings (W); at Seahawks (L); vs. Giants (W); at Vikings (W).

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