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Giants vs. Bears, Week 4: What to expect when Chicago has the ball

Can Justin Fields improve after a “terrible” performance in Week 3?

NFL: Houston Texans at Chicago Bears Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports

The 2-1 New York Giants will host the 2-1 Chicago Bears this Sunday, the finale in a three-game home stand.

While the Bears beat the Houston Texans in Week 3, you wouldn’t know it based on the comments from qurterback Justin Fields after the game. Fields said he “Straight up, I played like ー I want to say the “a” word, but I won’t, so I’ll say I just played like trash. Played terrible, and really just gotta be better.”

But Fields has played badly this year, and yet the Bears won, largely on the strength of their defense and running game.

“You can really throw that [excuses regarding the new offense] out the window for me, because I want to be as productive as I can be. Again, I played terrible today. I’m going to get better. We’re going to get better.”

What do the Giants have to look forward to on defense? Will Fields and the Bears get better on offense?

What to make of Justin Fields?

The Bears thought they got their franchise quarterback when they traded up with the Giants in 2021 to select Fields out of Ohio State. Fields was heralded for his arm strength, accuracy, efficiency, and athleticism, and he was in the conversation as QB2 after Trevor Lawrence.

But like much of the rest of the 2021 quarterback class, Fields hasn’t lived up to expectations. In fact, he has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL over the last two years. Like all rookies, Fields has needed to adjust to the NFL game, and he’s also had to put in work refining his mechanics.

Long-time NFL scout Greg Gabriel believes that Fields still has the potential to become a good starting QB in the NFL, and perhaps even a franchise player. He also believes that Fields’ struggles aren’t all on him. The Bears fired Matt Nagy after the 2021 season, bringing in former Colts DC Matt Eberflus as head coach and former Packers QB coach and passing game coordinator Luke Getsy as offensive coordinator.

Getsy has installed a sophisticated offensive scheme that requires precision and cohesion between the quarterback, blockers, and receivers. As Gabriel notes, it’s an offense that needs time to gel.

It appears that Fields isn’t yet comfortable in the offense. He has been reluctant to throw the ball, having thrown just 45 passes so far this year. Part of that may be due to Chicago’s weak receiving corps — Equanimeous St. Brown is the Bears’ leading receiver with four receptions, 77 yards, and a touchdown. Whatever the reason, Fields is attempting a targeted pass on just 64 percent of drop backs, which is by far the lowest in the NFL.

Against pressure, that rate drops down to 34 percent, while he scrambles on 24 percent of pressured drop backs (which is tied with Daniel Jones for the highest rate in the NFL).

However, Fields is still capable of producing through the air. He has great arm strength and has one of the highest intended air yardages in the NFL at 9.2 yards (fifth in the NFL). He’s had promising games against the Las Vegas Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, and Green Bay Packers. Not great, but promising.

Fields is also credited as being a tough, smart quarterback who sees the field well, and that seems to show up on tape. But while he does see the field well and has the ability to threaten defenses deep off of play-action, he isn’t throwing the ball well. Fields doesn’t seem comfortable with his reworked mechanics yet, causing his passes to be inaccurate. This is also a new offense for his receivers, causing miscommunications and poor routes.

Ultimately, Fields is a young quarterback who has started just 15 games for two different coaching staffs in a depleted offense. He should be susceptible to Wink Martindale’s blitz schemes and Chicago’s receiving corps shouldn’t stress the Giants’ secondary too much.

That said, the Giants do need to be wary of Fields’ ability to evade and escape defenders. He can be dangerous on the move, extending plays or picking up yards with his legs. And given how infrequently Fields throws the ball, we really need to talk about the Bears’ running game.

A run-heavy game

Fans of running the football should be in for a treat this game.

When I looked at the advanced stats from Monday Night Football, I wrote that it’s rare for a team to be better off running the ball than throwing it in the modern NFL. So far in 2022, the Giants are one of the teams who are (much) more efficient running the ball than throwing it.

As it turns out, so are the Chicago Bears, and to a remarkably similar degree as the Giants. Through three games, the Bears are getting +13.14 EPA from running the ball (third in the NFL) while throwing the ball is worth -13.34 EPA (29th). Those numbers are right next to the Giants’ offensive efficiency numbers. New York is one spot ahead of Chicago in rushing efficiency (No. 2) and one spot behind the Bears in passing efficiency (30th).

And much like the Giants, Chicago just lost a wide receiver to injury (Byron Pringle), and as mentioned above, their quarterback has been more dangerous as a runner than a passer. The Bears have a solid run blocking offensive line (12th in ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate), and they’re second in yards and yards per game (560 yards, 186.7 per game), and fourth in rushing touchdowns with four through three games.

Starting running back David Montgomery might miss this game after suffering ankle and knee injuries against the Texans. If so, the Giants will see a lot of second-year runner Khalil Herbert. Herbert isn’t big, and he has good — but not great — speed. Yet he gashed the Texans for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. So far, Herbert is averaging 7.3 yards per carry, with three touchdowns through three games.

He’s a compact runner at 5-foot-9, 212 pounds and runs with great patience, vision, contact balance, competitive toughness, and quickness. That combination of traits works very well in Chicago’s scheme. Herbert does a great job setting up his blocks and working within Chicago’s blocking scheme.

Matt Waldman of The Rookie Scouting Portfolio made a great three-tweet breakdown of how Herbert is able to subtly set himself up for success.

If Montgomery is out and Herbert carries the load for the Bears, that will give rookie Trestan Ebner the role of primary backup. Ebner is a versatile and fast runner with the ability to make big plays with the ball in his hands. He might not be as agile as Herbert is, but he has better long speed. Ebner returned three kickoffs for touchdowns over the course of his career at Baylor, and he also had 11 receiving touchdowns.

Considering the impact that Dontrell Hilliard and Tony Pollard had against the Giants’ defense, we might want to keep an eye on Ebner.

The X-Factor in all of this is Fields. While Fields hasn’t been comfortable in Chicago’s new offense, he has the traits to be unpredictable. He is capable of generating big plays through the air and could have a bounce-back game after a terrible performance against the Houston Texans. Even if Fields stays bad through the air, he’s an elite athlete who can extend drives with his legs.

Martindale will need a plan in place to account for Fields as a runner (or scrambler). and we could see them use a player, such as Tae Crowder, as a dedicated spy for the quarterback.

The battle in the trenches

So yeah, we should probably expect the Giants’ run defense to be tested early and often by the Bears. What could that look like?

The Bears primarily run inside zone and man-gap blocking schemes, calling those concepts more often than any other, and more frequently than league-average.

Those also happen to be the concepts with which Chicago has had the most success.

As you can guess based on their average usage around the league, the Giants haven’t faced many inside zone or man-gap rushes this year. Complicating things is the fact that the Giants have struggled to defend those concepts when they do see them.

(Note: When reading defensive EPA charts, negative is good because you’re denying the offense the chance to add points.)

Inside zone schemes are designed to take advantage of natural double-teams to create a numbers advantage on the play-side while also creating vertical movement and allowing linemen to work up to the second level. They balance power and finesse, while allowing patient runners with good vision to pick out running or cutback lanes. It’s one reason why Khalil Herbert has been so effective this year.

Shakin The Southland

So, how might the Giants defend the Bears’ rushing attack?

We saw one possibility against the Carolina Panthers, who also make relatively heavy use of inside zone and man-gap schemes. Against that offense, the Giants used a heavy front backed by nickel and dime (five- and six-defensive back) personnel packages.

While that front was conceived with Leonard Williams (who has yet to practice this week, as of this writing) at defensive end, the Giants could use Dexter Lawrence II and Jihad Ward at “end” and be fine. That would allow the Giants to use their two nose tackles — Justin Ellis and D.J. Davidson — to control the offensive interior and prevent blockers from climbing to the second level. It would also have the advantage of scheming Lawrence or Ward as a free rusher into the backfield or matching them up against a tight end or fullback.

While the Giants’ secondary is depleted by injury, the Bears’ struggles throwing the ball shouldn’t test them much. Using nickel or dime packages would allow them to match speed with Trestan Ebnar and have athletic players to contain Fields should he scramble or take off on a designed QB run.

Much like the Giants, the Bears are capable of “winning ugly.” Their strengths make for an intriguing matchup for the Giants’ defense.