What went wrong in Justin Fields' starting debut for the Chicago Bears, and what's next?

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Sifting through the wreckage of the Chicago Bears’ 26-6 loss to the Cleveland Browns last week leads to one conclusion: The offense failed on virtually every level imaginable.

The numbers are gruesome: six first downs; 1-of-11 on third downs; 47 net yards; 1 net passing yard; 1.1 average yards per offensive play -- the second-lowest mark in the NFL in 20 years; nine sacks allowed.

Rookie quarterback Justin Fields had a forgettable NFL starting debut, finishing 6-of-20 for 68 yards in addition to three rushing attempts for 12 yards. But the bulk of the criticism has been levied against Bears coach Matt Nagy, who doubles as the playcaller and primary game-plan designer.

What really went wrong in Cleveland? We enlisted a panel of experts to weigh in on the Bears' offensive debacle, and what can be done to improve their performance against the Detroit Lions on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

Protection problems

One of the biggest issues stemmed from the Bears' choice of protections against a Browns defensive line that entered the game fifth in the NFL in pass rush win rate and featured two former No. 1 overall picks in Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Bears enlisted the minimum of five pass-blockers on 21 of the 31 pass plays (67%) Nagy & Co. called against the Browns. Cleveland's defense responded by sacking Fields six times in those dropbacks.

“Listen, I’m not going to call for anyone’s job,” ESPN NFL analyst Jeff Saturday said. “To me, that’s a bit over the top. But it was not a good game plan.

“You are taking a rookie quarterback and putting him behind five-man protections when your five can’t block them. You can’t leave him in a stagnant position and keep him in place.”

The Bears deployed five empty sets (a formation with no backs in the backfield) to presumably force the Browns to reveal their coverage. But the plan backfired, which was highlighted by Garrett's franchise-record 4.5 sacks on the day.

“Whether it’s Justin Fields or Tom Brady, you are still going to use max protection,” ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen said.

“You need to give your quarterback a clean throwing platform to where he can read the field high to low and try to flip the field and bring some juice to that offense. Even with Andy Dalton in there, this offense lacks a ton of juice in the passing game. So how do I create that juice? I do it with shot plays down the field.”

Lack of deep thinking

The Bears' longest play from scrimmage was a short pass to Allen Robinson that the wide receiver turned into an 18-yard gain by dragging tacklers for an additional 7 yards.

The Bears never attempted a pass beyond 20 yards or ran a route more than 20 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

For whatever reasons, the Bears were also reluctant to move Fields around and accentuate his strength as a runner, with Fields throwing three passes from outside the pocket and completing one.

“I would have liked to see the plays catered more to Fields,” former Bears wide receiver Tom Waddle said.

“Last year, near the end of the season, they really moved the pocket well for Mitchell Trubisky. Albeit, this happened versus a lot of lesser teams, but it was a game plan that made sense. I don’t really feel that Sunday’s game plan made a lot of sense. But guess what? The players are also paid to do their job, and they didn’t do it.”

No room for air

The Bears' players underperformed in Cleveland. And that's putting it nicely.

“The offensive line protection was very poor, very poor,” Bowen said. “I didn’t see hardly any separation by those receivers, either."

The Bears' pass-catchers were indeed no help to Fields and the offense. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Fields' targets averaged 2.1 yards of separation against Browns defenders Sunday, while targeted wide receivers averaged 1.3 yards of separation -- both league-worst marks by any team this season.

This meant the passing windows for Fields were small and the margin for error slim. In all, 45% of his pass attempts were into tight windows (separation of less than 1 yard when the ball arrives), which is the highest of any team in a game since 2019.

“My advice to Fields: Windows are going to be tighter in the NFL. He needs to see it, trust it and cut it loose. When they scheme up a window for you, you have to take it,” Bowen added.

A rookie who just needs reps

Saturday cited several plays when he noticed Fields’ inexperience.

“There was a throw he could’ve had on a zone read to Darnell Mooney and his hips were turned the wrong way to make that throw, but in the future he will call that fake off and just take the snap and deliver the ball,” Saturday said.

“Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers would do that all the time in our offense. They would call things off or give, like, a quick call so the back could clear and they would put the ball where you need to put it. Fields isn’t there yet.”

He added: “They had a seven-man protection, and it was third-and-10 and the defense is playing 'sticks' to prevent the first down and he could have dumped it off to the tight end, Cole Kmet, to not take the sack or hit. You’re trying to teach him that there are plays where you just have to live to play the next play. Don’t take the body blow, get rid of the ball. If Kmet can make a big play, great, if not, we punt it and put one of the best defenses in the league back on the field.”

'The only way to go is up'

After such a rotten Week 3, the Bears' offense has the chance to flip the script with a winnable game at home against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.

“The only way to go is up,” Bowen laughed.

The Bears have to learn from their mistakes, however. Sometimes, the franchise has been less than eager to do so, and problems have stretched over many years and regimes with the culprits a combination of scheme and personnel.

Eventually, the Bears have to learn their lesson.

“The crime of it is that you didn’t really give Fields a chance because of the way you designed the game plan, but he’ll learn from it,” Saturday said. “It’s not the first time a team has had a bad game plan. It wasn’t intentional. It just wasn’t put together and oiled right.”