Fields in Focus (7/8): Man vs. Zone

| May 11th, 2023

Today is the seventh of eight articles taking a closer look at Justin Fields’ 2022 season.

All data comes from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted, and Fields’ stats are only from week 5 on, as was explained in part one of this series.

General Overview

Let’s start with a general look at how Fields performed against man and zone coverage in 2022.

Before we get into the data, a quick caveat: PFF doesn’t publicly show this data by QB, but instead by pass catcher. I manually compiled it team by team to do comparisons, but it doesn’t include all throws. This accounts for roughly 90% of Fields’ total pass attempts. For the Bears, this data is only for the 11 games Fields started and played the majority of from Week 5 on.

With that said, the table below shows how Fields fared throwing against both man and zone compared to the NFL average (I couldn’t do the usual NFL high/medium/low since this wasn’t split up by QB). YBC = yards before catch, YAC = yards after catch.

A few thoughts:

  • First, the Bears saw a bit more zone coverage than was typical in the NFL last year. That makes sense given Fields’ running abilities, as zone will leave more defenders watching the QB and able to flow to the ball if he takes off.
  • Looking at the NFL averages, you can see that zone coverages generally give up more completions and yards per attempt but allow fewer touchdowns and result in more interceptions.
    • That was especially true for Fields, who threw more interceptions than touchdowns against zone but picked up an obscene touchdown rate against man coverage. I am going to tentatively credit the touchdowns to a good play caller who was able to scheme players open in the red zone, considering the struggles elsewhere against man coverage.
  • In terms of gaining yards efficiently, Fields’ yards/attempt mark was generally a bit better than typical against zone and a bit worse than typical against man.
    • The zone efficiency was largely driven by pushing the ball downfield, as his yards before catch mark was about 1.5 higher than the NFL average.
    • In man coverage, Fields’ average completion was actually shorter than the NFL average, which is a bit surprising considering Fields likes to throw the ball deep quite a bit. I would guess that speaks to Fields’ targets having trouble getting open down the field against man coverage, which would force more checkdowns.

Positional Split

Let’s look now at how Fields did throwing to various positions against both man and zone.


We’ll start with a look at man coverage. The table below shows how frequently and effectively Fields threw to running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends when the opposing defense was in man.

A few thoughts:

  • The biggest thing that stands out here is that the Bears’ WRs were really bad against man coverage. They were targeted less frequently than the NFL average, and their catch % and yards/reception were both well below NFL norms as well. This isn’t a huge surprise; Chicago had arguably the worst group of wide receivers in the NFL last year, and it’s easier to scheme bad players open against zone coverage than against man.
    • There is a huge split when looking at Darnell Mooney (67% completion, 9.4 yards/target against man) and the rest of the receiving core (44% completion, 5.0 yards/target). Mooney is an actual starting NFL WR, but nobody else on the Bears was. This is a big part of why the Bears had one of the worst EPA/play results throwing to WRs even though they were around average throwing to RB + TE.
    • That includes Chase Claypool, who was brutal against man coverage last year (55% completion, 4.7 yards/target). 2020 and 2021 were a bit better, but still only average at best (52% completion, 7.9 yards/target). Hopefully a return to the mean here can help the Bears out a bit.
    • Greater improvement will come from adding DJ Moore, who averaged 8.3 yards/target against man coverage last year while playing with some of the NFL’s worst quarterbacks. For his career, Moore is at 9.4 yards/target against man coverage. Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, which charts all wide receivers on every route they run, had Moore at around the 75th percentile in success rate against both man and zone.
      • Moore also gets the ball downfield against man coverage. He averaged 12.8 yards/catch in the air, more than 3.5 yards deeper than the NFL average.
  • Fields targeted his tight ends when facing man coverage more than is typical, which is a curious decision considering how much he struggled completing passes to them. The completion percentage was 10% below NFL average, which is the primary driving factor in a yards/attempt mark that is well below the typical NFL value.
    • New tight end Robert Tonyan should help here. In his 3 seasons as a starter, he caught 79% of his targets against man coverage and averaged 7.6 yards/target. Some of that is due to Aaron Rodgers being a great QB, but Tonyan also has the athletic ability to run routes that beat man coverage in a way that many TEs do not.
  • Fields also liked to throw to running backs more than typical against man coverage, and they excelled in this area. This was almost all David Montgomery, who the Bears are definitely going to miss in the passing game. Neither Khalil Herbert nor D’Onta Foreman has ever done much as a pass catcher in the NFL, so the main hope for replacing Montgomery in this regard likely falls to 4th round pick Roschon Johnson.


Let’s shift now to looking at how Fields fared against zone coverage. The table below matches the one for man above but is zone stats.

A few thoughts:

  • Look at the massive difference in frequency and efficiency for the WRs here compared to against man. Now the WRs get targeted as frequently as average, and those targets turn into catches down the field. This discrepancy really highlights how much Chicago’s poor WRs hurt the offense last year. You can scheme around it a bit in zone, but not man.
    • If you’re looking for a clear sign of growth from Fields, I think this is it. He averaged only 7.5 yards/attempt throwing to WRs against zone as a rookie in 2021, and that number increased dramatically in 2022 despite the quality of the WRs dropping quite a bit. That’s a testament to Fields learning how to read NFL defenses effectively.
    • The difference in efficiency for Mooney (84% completion, 8.9 yards/target) and other WRs (64% completion, 9.0 yards/target) all but disappears here, reinforcing that zone production is more about the QB and scheme than the pass catchers.
  • Like we saw against man, Fields liked to throw to TEs a bit more than is typical. I would imagine this is largely due to Cole Kmet being the most stable receiving option last year, while the WRs were a rotating cast of poor options, especially after Darnell Mooney got hurt.
    • In general, the efficiency throwing to TEs was right around league average across the board, though completed passes were generally a bit shorter than normal, and the tight ends made up for it by picking up more yards after the catch than typical.
  • On the flip side, Fields threw to RBs less often than is normal against zone. This likely speaks to Fields’ big game mentality; he wants to push the ball downfield, not check it down, and that is easier to do against zone coverage where there are holes that can be exploited.
    • With that said, it will be important for Fields to find a good balance between aggression and checking down. He needs to improve on the short stuff, as we saw earlier in this series. That will be one way he can cut down on the high interception rate he saw against zone defense.
    • When he did throw to running backs, the efficiency was pretty similar to NFL averages, just like we saw with tight ends.

Lessons Learned

If you’re not a fan of wading through 1200 words of content and just want the main takeaways, this is the section for you!

  • Fields threw a lot of touchdowns against man coverage, but otherwise struggled.
    • This was especially stark throwing to WRs, where Darnell Mooney was the only WR capable of producing when somebody manned up on him.
    • New additions DJ Moore and Robert Tonyan both have a history of producing against man coverage, which should help.
  • Fields moved the ball efficiently against zone coverage but had more interceptions than touchdowns.
    • He was especially impressive throwing to WRs, which speaks well to his growth from his rookie year.

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