They knew Fields wanted to run. Entering Sunday, no quarterback had more carries or more rushing yards. Fields plays in a run-first Chicago Bears offense -- one somewhat similar to what the Falcons run -- but they knew how much of a difference he made and how much of it was when teams treated him like a pocket passer instead of a dual-threat QB.
Knowing this, the Falcons had one thing in mind.
“We weren’t going to turn our back and hand them anything,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “We were going to make them earn it.”
Earning it, in this instance, meant keeping Fields in front of them, keeping him from becoming the big-play agent of defensive chaos he’d been for opponents the last month.
In Smith’s words: Make Fields go “the long, hard way.”
All season long, teams have been trying to blitz Fields. Except that’s perhaps when Fields is at his best, when he can use the combination of his arms and his legs to get defenses off-balance and then attack. Entering Sunday, teams blitzed Fields 38% of the time, second-highest in the league.
Atlanta saw this and decided to do the opposite.
The Falcons blitzed Fields once Sunday in 30 dropbacks -- the 3.3% blitz rate the first time in his pro career he has been blitzed less than 10% of the time.
“When you blitz you take away somebody to have eyes on him so I think it was a good game plan from coach,” Falcons edge rusher Lorenzo Carter said. “We made sure to just not give up explosives. As you can see, Justin Fields is an explosive player.
“As long as we limited the explosive plays and tried to make him play quarterback, then good things will happen.”
The strategy worked. Atlanta gave up only two plays of 20 or more yards against the Bears -- passes from Fields to David Montgomery (32 yards) and Cole Kmet (24 yards). Fields’ longest run was 17 yards. It was his only run over 10 yards all game.
Fields may have rushed for 85 yards (4.72 per carry) and threw for 153 yards, but compared to what he had been doing, it was successful. The 4.72 yards per carry was Fields’ lowest average since Week 2 -- doing so while rushing a season-high 18 times.
That’s because of the Falcons’ contain-first strategy. They made sure they always knew where Fields was and what he was attempting to do.
“When you blitz a lot you kind of give out lanes and stuff,” Falcons edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie said. “So I think going straight and everybody accounting for the quarterback just keeping him in the pocket we thought was the best thing for us.”
The Falcons’ strategy also had an unexpected dividend. While it gave Fields a lot of time to throw -- and he created more time by scrambling and evading defenders -- it also produced Atlanta’s highest pressure percentage of the season (40%).
It was more about being smart with their rushes and not getting caught in ineffective quarterback pursuits that could lead to open rushing holes.
“With their defensive ends and their zone reads, they were just mesh-charged rather than letting me read their D-ends and get around them,” Fields said. “That’s kind of how they handled the zone read game and they were playing a lot of quarters. Just to have that safety come down and help in the run game.
“That was the biggest thing they did in the run game.”
Atlanta had more sacks (four) than any week since Week 1 against New Orleans and nine quarterback hits. It meant Fields was taking punishment -- the hits as a quarterback combined with 18 rushes, which Smith likened to him becoming a running back, seemed to wear Fields down in the second half.
Which also was part of Atlanta’s strategy. Be more physical. Smith felt it was their advantage going in -- often their advantage in games this season. On Sunday it worked perhaps better than any strategy the Falcons have had all year long.
“Don’t let him scramble out of the pocket,” Ebiketie said. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible and I think we did a pretty good job of it.”