Tired of ‘heavy legs,’ Bears’ Justin Fields changing schedule to stay fresh

Jeff Okudah was Justin Fields’ best friend when the latter was a sophomore at Ohio State. The quarterback and cornerback wore the same number, lived in the same apartment building and spent time in each other’s room almost every day after practice.

When Okudah said on Sunday that the Bears quarterback is faster now than he was in college, he knew what he was talking about.

“In the offseason in college I was fast,” Fields said Wednesday. “But during the season, since I did not run as much in college, I probably would lose speed. But since now that I’m running constantly, I probably keep my speed from the offseason.”

Fields and the Bears are still learning the best way to keep him fresh.

Bears quarterbacks typically run a few gassers — sprints across the width of the field — during practice. Fields will probably skip them, and other extra conditioning, this week. He’ll double down on treatment from trainers, too, after admitting that his legs were sore during the 31-30 loss to the Lions.

“I don’t even know if it was the hits; it’s just the running,” he said. “My legs just felt heavy after the game. The guys on the strength staff said that my load has been pretty high, so just been doing a little bit of tapering back this week in practice.”

It’s all part of adjusting to life as the most dominant rushing quarterback in the league. Fields has run for 555 yards in his last five games, the most ever for a quarterback during that span. Sunday — heavy legs and all — he ran for a 67-yard touchdown run, the longest for in franchise history for a quarterback. He broke his own record, set just a week earlier.

“I would say it’s pretty amazing — the numbers and the ability to run,” head coach Matt Eberflus said. “And then to see his growth in the passing game. And then, really, to see all those guys around him starting to gel … It really helps our running game. It helps the runners.”

An efficient passing game is the next step. The Bears lost Sunday, in part because of a pick-six Fields threw to Okudah, his old friend, in the fourth quarter.

The sheer volume of runs, though, is a burden put on few other quarterbacks in the league. In the last five games, Fields has run 62 times, which is 25 times more than any other quarterback and tied for 15th-most in the league. Fields is averaging 9 yards per carry during that span; no one else in the top 20 of carries during that span can top 5.9.

Fields leads the Bears in rushing yards and could even finish the season as their leader in rushes. His 104 carries trail Khalil Herbert by four, though Herbert is on injured reserve for at least another four weeks, and David Montgomery by 11.

It’s new territory for modern NFL teams — and for Fields himself.

He ran often as a sophomore at Ohio State, carrying 137 times for 484 yards in 14 games. During eight games in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Fields ran 81 times for 383 yards in eight games. Take away 52 sacks, though — in the NCAA, sacks count as rushes for negative yards — and Fields ran 8.3 times per game.

He’s averaging 10.4 this season.

With seven games to go, he’s preparing his body for even more.

“I pretty much get that training during the game,” he said. “I get that conditioning, extra work during the game — and then recover during the week and get my body ready to go on Sunday.”

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