Cheer Justin Fields on Saturday — but don’t lose sight of what mattersPatrick Finleyon August 26, 2021 at 7:13 pm

Enjoy Justin Fields on TV on Saturday night, Bears fans. Wear your No. 1 jersey and marvel at his athleticism and relish this last piece of quarterbacking excitement for a while.

But don’t lose fact of what matters — Fields walking out of the stadium feeling no pain.

The Bears will play their rookie behind a starting offensive line and pull him at halftime, but the rest of Saturday’s game against the Titans will be a cavalcade of second- and third-stringers fighting for final roster spots.

The Bears will evaluate Fields, but in context. Coach Matt Nagy will call plays that give Fields the best chance of avoiding injury.

As he should.

“To be completely honest with you, there’s some of that in there,” Nagy said before the Bears’ final training camp practice Thursday. “And we’ve got to know who’s in there and who he’s playing with and all that. There’s the evaluation part too. But we feel good about where Justin is and how he’s played the amount of snaps he’s gotten.”

It only makes sense to play the B-team against the Titans. Let the starters worry about Week 1.

The only hiccup, of course, is that the long-term health of the Bears’ franchise hinges on someone who’s not a starter.

“The biggest difference between games and practice is the actual D-line coming to hit you,” Fields said this week. “In practice, the D-line is told not to be around the quarterback, but actually facing that in-game pressure and having to throw with pressure in your face is the biggest difference between a game and practice.”

That’s a scary thought for a quarterback whose helmet flew five yards in the air after a sack against the Bills. And it’s a risk the Bears are taking by not letting Nick Foles take every snap in Nashville.

Nagy vowed to play his starters more this preseason than he did in 2019, when his team was flatter than a day-old soda in its 10-3 primetime season-opening loss to the Packers. The team’s rash of injuries in August changed those plans in the first two exhibitions. Receiver Allen Robinson hasn’t played. Tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Darnell Mooney have six snaps apiece. David Montgomery has been on the field for one snap.

Instead, the Bears have preached for weeks that their starters merely need to be ready for Week 1.

“I mean that’s when those things count — that’s what matters,” tight end Cole Kmet said. “So we’re gearing up towards that. I know guys are banged up from camp a little bit, from the past couple of weeks.”

When the NFL switched from four preseason games to three this offseason, they altered the formula that some coaching purists hung onto long after others chose rest: a dress rehearsal in Week 3 and a B-team game in Week 4.

“There’s always been a recipe …” Nagy said. “Well now I think you’re probably gonna see half the coaches are probably going to play their starters for a quarter, quarter and a half. The other guys are going to pull their starters and no one is going to play.”

The Chargers decided that quarterback Justin Herbert, the reigning NFL Rookie of the Year, would not play in any preseason games. Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady, last year’s Super Bowl combatants, have. The Bills’ Josh Allen hasn’t — but will appear in the finale against the Packers.

“What’s going to happen in Week 1 is, when the teams that win, every one of them is going to be geniuses because they sat their guys or because they played their guys — because they looked good,” Nagy said. “That’s just how it goes.”

Nagy chose to be conservative by benching starter Andy Dalton on Saturday — but didn’t do the same with Fields. His genius will be measured by how gingerly Fields walks off the field after his last snap.

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