Bears’ Justin Fields returns to present Falcons with a major challenge

He was bypassed in the draft in favor of tight end Kyle Pitts in 2021

FLOWERY BRANCH -- In his second season in the NFL, Justin Fields is settling in as the Bears’ starting quarterback.

The Bears (3-7) are set to face the Falcons (4-6) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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Fields, who was the No. 2 recruit in the nation in the 247Sports Composite while at Harrison High, went on to play at Georgia and Ohio State.

Fields will have a continent of family and friends, including his mother and father, at the game. He attended games as a youth watching Matt Ryan and Julio Jones work their magic.

“Of course it’s exciting for sure,” Fields told the Chicago media. “(But) my goal really is just to go 1-0 this week and win the game.”

The Falcons passed on Fields in the 2021 draft and selected tight end Kyle Pitts with the fourth overall pick.

Fields went to the Bears with the 11th pick. He went 2-8 as a starter during his rookie season. Under first-year coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, the Bears have used him more in the rushing attack.

Fields rushed for 147 yards in a 31-30 loss to the Lions on Sunday and for 178 yards in a 35-32 loss to the Dolphins on Nov. 6. The 178 and his 325 in a two-game span are NFL records for a quarterback.

“He presents a whole bunch of challenges,” Falcons defensive line coach Gary Emanuel said. “He’s big, strong and physical runner. So, we just have to be sound in our assignments and responsibilities.”

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Fields has the attention of the Falcons’ defense.

“Some of them are designed runs,” Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Some of them are zone-read runs. But there’s a lot of them on third down when he drops back to pass and takes off, and he gets 25 (yards) or something. ... A lot of assignment football this week.”

The Falcons still must respect the passing attack. Fields has completed 58.9% of his passes and has thrown 12 touchdowns to seven interceptions.

“We have to be very detailed in our pass rush, too,” Pees said. “You just can’t fly up the field. This isn’t like (Tom) Brady or (Peyton) Manning or somebody like that, who’s going to sit there in the pocket all day and be a statue. He’s not. He’s going to take off. He’s a 230-pound guy who can run the ball.”

When the Falcons used to face Carolina’s Cam Newton, then-coach Mike Smith used linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to spy on Newton. Falcons coach Arthur Smith has seen spying, too.

“(Matt) Eberflus did it to us with Darius Leonard with Marcus (Mariota, when Eberflus was the Colts defensive coordinator and Smith was the Titans offensive coordinator), but it came more on third down,” Smith said. “When you have a player like that, certainly, but it’s got to be in the right situation. Like, I’m sure they will have a spy at some point for us.”

At 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, Fields is more Newton as a runner than Michael Vick or Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. He’s a strong and powerful runner.

“You see it with different guys, and some guys are speed guys or quick. They can make you look stupid when you’re in the hole, and you’re wrapping up air, and they got up under you,” Smith said. “Then you get guys that when they pull it, they can outrun you, they can break tackles, they can put their foot in the ground and they’re explosive going north/south, and it’s a problem ... a guy like Cam Newton. When he keeps it, well, it’s a different set of problems.”

When passing, Fields usually is looking for tight end Cole Kmet in the red zone. He has five receiving touchdowns this season.

“They get down there and have schemed up some things to Kmet,” Smith said. “You overplay it, and Kmet’s got a really good feel.”

The Falcons run 3-4 base and 4-2-5 nickel defensive schemes. They likely will have to play some man-to-man and never turn their backs to Fields.

“People have tried different stuff, the way that it fits their defense,” Smith said. “You’ve got to be gap sound because they have their traditional runs. There’s clearly a lot on the call sheet because you’re seeing a lot of one-time scheme things, too, to go with their traditional runs.”

Fields will be without the Bears’ top rushing running back in Khalil Herbert, who was placed on injured reserve with a hip injury. Dave Montgomery and rookie Trestan Ebner will split the duties at running back.

Ebner has been a problem, and he can be a problem in the kick-return game, returned one at Baylor,” Smith said. “Those are things that you have to take into account.”

The Falcons heavily scouted Fields during the pre-draft process before deciding on Pitts.

“Every year, our scouting staff and football staff do a tremendous job, but that’s a long thorough process; every player is different,” Smith said.

The Falcons had Ryan at the time, and this was a year before they went into the murky waters of the Deshaun Watson derby and came out with Mariota.

In retrospect, should they have taken Fields?

“There were a lot of players available, and if my math is right, only three would have been gone,” Smith said. “Again, I went to North Carolina, so I at least can count to three, though. Anybody after the first three – there’s a lot of players available. You can go down that rabbit hole a lot of different ways.”

Fields, offensive tackle Penei Sewell, wide receiver JaMarr Chase and linebacker Micah Parsons were among the players available when the Falcons picked.

This year, the Falcons selected quarterback Desmond Ridder in the third round. He was 44-5 at Cincinnati, but the 2022 group of quarterbacks was not as highly thought of as the 2021 group.

Ridder has not played a down from scrimmage this season.

When you’re looking at them and where you’re at in your program, you can’t take every player,” Smith said. “Some of them – with history, you’ve had a little bit of luck.

“You get to an environment where you see guys careers where they haven’t been asked to do a whole lot early in their career, and they win a lot of football games because they’re in stable organizations, and on good teams. Then eventually they get a couple of years into it and all of those reps, they’re completely different players.”

That’s clearly the early plan for Ridder.

“There’s a lot of factors there,” Smith said.

The Bears’ general manager was Ryan Pace when Fields was selected. He was fired after last season and joined the Falcons as a senior executive to general manager Terry Fontenot.

Passing on Fields may come back to haunt the Falcons.

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule

Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15

Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14

Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17

Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT

Nov. 6 Chargers 20, Falcons 17

Nov. 10 Panthers 25, Falcons 15

Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.

Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

BYE WEEK

Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD

Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD