This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns take on the Chicago Bears. To help preview a few topics from the Bears’ perspective, we reached out to Bill Zimmerman from Windy City Gridiron and exchanged five questions with him.
Chris: “The last time Justin Fields came to Browns stadium was in 2021, when he was 6-of-20 for 68 yards, and was sacked 9 times, including 4.5 times by Myles Garrett in a 26-6 loss. That was then, but tell us about the Fields of 2023.”
Bill: “That Justin Fields was a long time ago. And let’s not pretend that Matt Nagy’s horrendous game plan for that particular game wasn’t complete malpractice either, but certainly, any way you cut it, that remains the worst performance of Justin Fields’ career.
The Justin Fields of 2023 is a much improved quarterback. He still has some lows (see the games vs Kansas City and the first matchup with Minnesota) but his highs are pretty awesome (Denver and Washington games) but the last few games we are actually seeing where the middle is, which is, of course, where most quarterbacks spend their times throughout the season. Fields’ last three games is probably a good indicator as to where he is as a player right now. He’s much better in the passing game. He is showing he can manage the quick, short game well and still will try to hurt a defense a couple times a game with deep shots. His legs are a weapon and you can expect him to run 7 to 10 times in the game. He hasn’t had the explosive 60-yard touchdown runs, but defenses are playing a lot more zone with a QB spy and not allowing Fields to have the running lanes to go off for a massive touchdown run. That doesn’t mean he can’t run for 25 yards on 3rd and 8 because he will do that, but defenses have gotten better this year at not letting him run free.
So there are a lot more positives about Fields, but some of the negatives remain. He still holds onto the football too long leading to too many sacks (and at times, fumbles), he doesn’t throw with anticipation frequently enough and if his first downfield option isn’t open, he’s been checking down frequently before going through other downfield progressions. So it’s not perfect, but it’s much improved which is leading towards a near-impossible decision for Ryan Poles this offseason. Do you trade a pretty good QB with elite traits who still has room for improvement and use the number one pick (now a 95% certainty that the Bears will get it) on Caleb Williams, or do you trade the pick and run this back and hope that Fields has more development to do.”
Chris: “How has Chicago’s pass defense been?”
Bill: “The Bears secondary has been good for most of the year. It looked pretty weak early, but they had a lot of injuries earlier in the year, Jaquan Brisker, Eddie Jackson, Kyler Gordon and Jaylon Johnson all missed multiple games and they all seemingly did it at basically the same time. Now that they are healthy, the secondary has been strong. Johnson has been an elite corner all season long (PFF’s highest-graded CB), Kyler Gordon is a fun nickel with crazy athleticism, rookie Tyrique Stevenson is up and down but has had more ups than downs lately, Jaquan Brisker isn’t great in coverage but does a great job coming up in the run and is a strong blitzer and Eddie Jackson is the veteran presence to quarterback the secondary (although he isn’t the impact player he once was).
What has really boosted the pass defense is the addition of Montez Sweat. The Bears had one of the bottom three pass rushes in the NFL prior to the Sweat deal. They just couldn’t generate pressure. That left the secondary in an impossible spot of needing to cover for 5 or 6 seconds on many dropbacks which you know is impossible. But with Sweat, he’s elevated the entire pass rush and now the pass rush is pretty solid and it’s taken the pressure off the secondary and the last two games against Minnesota and Detroit, the pass defense has had their best performances of the season.”
Chris: “What is the biggest strength and weakness on the Bears’ offensive line?”
Bill: “Individually, the Bears biggest strength is guard Teven Jenkins. Jenkins punishes defenders and has become one of the top ten guards in the league. Previously he was a strong run blocker and a decent pass blocker, but his pass blocking skills have been fantastic this year and he’s easily put together the best season of his career. The weakest spot on the line is center Lucas Patrick and it’s not particularly close. He’s struggled most of the year and will almost certainly be replaced next season. The Bears are one center away from having a really strong offensive line as both young tackles, Braxton Jones and Darnell Wright, continue to improve and show their potential and guard Nate Davis is a solid player that doesn’t wow you but doesn’t make a ton of mistakes.
As a whole, the Bears run blocking has regressed from last year but they still put together a solid rushing attack most games. Their pass blocking has improved since last year and steadily improved throughout this season to the point where, for the first time in his career, you are starting to notice Justin Fields trusting his pass blocking and staying in the pocket longer.”
Chris: “Tell us about one player who Browns fans may not have heard of, but who could have an impact on this Sunday’s game.”
Bill: “The name that comes to mind is defensive tackle Gervon Dexter. Dexter was one of the Bears second round picks this past year and the rookie was very quiet earlier in the year but has steadily improved. Since Sweat has arrived, Dexter’s play has seen a pretty sizable jump and he is starting to create some problems along the interior. The last couple of weeks, Matt Eberflus has started moving him around on the defensive line and having him play both outside and inside and he nabbed the first sack of his career last week. Earlier this week, Eberflus announced that DE Yannick Ngakoue broke his ankle last game and is out for the year. The Bears don’t have a ton of edge depth, so I expect DeMarcus Walker to spend a lot more time at defensive end, which will open the door for Dexter to see a jump in his snap counts. If he had a TFL or two or a few pressures on Joe Flacco, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
Chris: “The Browns are favorites against the Bears on Sunday (Browns -3 as of this question, per DraftKings Sportsbook). Who would you pick against the spread?”
Bill: “So I’ve been doing the “Five Questions” series throughout the year, and almost every game I pick against the Bears, but I feel this team has really turned the corner. They’ve won three of four, the defense is playing like a top ten unit right now, the offense remains unspectacular but it’s moving the ball better and scoring enough points. I know the Browns have a strong defense but I’ve seen them struggling a little bit of late. The Bears have a hard time handling elite quarterback play (see the games against Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert this year), but they do a strong job against lesser QBs which fits the bill for Joe Flacco. So while I usually pick against the Bears, in this game, not only would I take the Bears +3, I would pick them on the moneyline.
This game is the fulcrum point of the season for the Bears. They sit at 5-8, if they lose this game, their season is effectively over, but if they win this one, they have games at home coming up against the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons, it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to be 8-8 and play on Sunday Night Football the final week of the season against the Green Bay Packers with a playoff berth on the line. But for any of that to happen, they have to go on the road and beat Cleveland. It’s a great measuring stick to see if the Bears have actually turned the corner, or have just beaten some bad teams and played well in one isolated game against the Lions last week.”
Thanks again to Bill for taking the time to answer my questions.