Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

19 Nov 2012

Film Room: 49ers-Bears

by Andy Benoit

Bears offense vs. 49ers defense

The Bears have lost two games this season. The first was because the Packers were able to generate pressure on Jay Cutler with just a four-man rush, which allowed them to play two deep safeties behind man-to-man coverage. That was enough to discourage Cutler from throwing downfield to Brandon Marshall, who was targeted just five times that night. The second loss came last Sunday, as Cutler got knocked out late in the first half, forcing Chicago to put the game in Jason Campbell’s hands. Not to rip Campbell, but he plays like a robot permanently programmed to "checkdown" mode.

With Cutler out on Monday night, the Bears will once again be relying on their predictable 30-year-old backup, which means the forces of their two losses will collide. No team plays two-man coverage better than the 49ers. In fact, you could argue that no team plays any coverage better than 49ers play two-man. In Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and –- last week’s struggles aside –- Chris Culliver, the Niners have three outstanding man-under cornerbacks. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are a pair of rangy, explosive safeties over the top.

Most defenses can’t afford to play two-man all game long. They either need to bring an eighth defender in the box on early downs or generate pressure via the blitz on third downs. Not the Niners. Eight-man boxes are unnecessary, as Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are voracious run defenders on all downs and against all formations. Less noticed is San Francisco’s pass rush, which rarely needs boosting from a blitz. You already know it’s a great pass-rush on the right side, with Justin Smith stunting to clear paths for the lanky, über-athletic Aldon Smith. But on the left side, Ahmad Brooks is nearly as dynamic as Aldon Smith, and he’s much more versatile. Playing in conjunction with underrated end Ray McDonald, Brooks has become an all-around force in coverage and as an attacker.

The Bears won’t have an answer for San Francisco’s defense. Their offensive line, though sturdier than it was early in the year, is still a stiff, limited group. Aside from Matt Forte, dumpoff outlets are limited for Campbell because tight end Kellen Davis –- who has no chance of beating the man coverage of Willis or Bowman anyway –- has been as reliable as a deluged cell phone this season. All the Niners have to focus on is containing Brandon Marshall. They’ll have more than enough resources to do that.

49ers offense vs. Bears defense

San Francisco makes no bones about it: they’re going to run the ball. The Bears always have one of the NFL’s toughest run-defending front sevens. But that front was exploited somewhat by the Texans last Sunday night.

San Francisco’s power-oriented man-blocking scheme is very different from Houston’s finesse zone approach. Instead of preventing the Bears defensive linemen from beating them with penetration, look for the Niners to cede penetration -– at least inside to defensive tackles Henry Melton and Stephen Paea. In doing so, the Niners will use trap blocks from the guard or crossing blocks from motioning tight ends to shield Melton and Paea on the backside. This approach -– which San Francisco had great success with against a Lions front four that’s similar in explosiveness and style to Chicago's -– enables the guards to work cleanly to the second level. Second-level blocking is critical for beating the Bears. Brian Urlacher is elite when it comes to diagnosing run plays, filling gaps, and taking on lead-blockers. But when forced to react and shed blocks, Urlacher tends to get caught in the wash. San Francisco's game plan will likely hinge on soaring left guard, Mike Iupati, being able to hang up Urlacher.

In all likelihood, the Bears will play an eight-man box on first and second downs, daring Colin Kaepernick to drop back and throw. Jim Harbaugh loves to have his tightly managed (and in this case, inexperienced) quarterbacks throw on early downs. The question is whether Kaepernick can throw with confidence. In limited samples, he has struggled at times to clearly diagnose NFL defenses. How aggressive will he be? Going into this game, Kaepernick will be well-aware that Tim Jennings leads the league with eight picks and that Charles Tillman is perhaps even deadlier on the other side. Expect the play-calling to be tighter, with even more defined reads, as San Francisco's coaches know the Bears will be rotating their safeties after the snap to create confusion.

The Niners hope their passing game can be but a mere afterthought in this one. The outcome will be decided by which side wins on the ground.

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Posted by: Andy Benoit on 19 Nov 2012

17 comments, Last at 20 Nov 2012, 11:07am by Jimmy

Comments

1
by Charles Jake (not verified) :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 3:57pm

Yeah. The Niners have the tools to crack the Bears D before the Bears can crack theirs, especially with Captain Checkdown under center.

2
by Ferguson Mitchell (not verified) :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 4:07pm

Interesting that there is no mention of Alshon Jeffery (back from injury) or Evan Rodriguez as receiving options.

3
by Duke :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 4:31pm

Given that Rodriguez does not have a catch yet this season, I think it's fair to ignore him as an option. :)

But Jeffery is an interesting point. It would be putting a lot on him, in his first game back, to try and break the 49ers D. Especially if they're not going to go downfield much, thanks to Campbell being under center.

12
by commissionerleaf :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 8:17pm

"They" may well want to go downfield. But Campbell doesn't see open receivers more than fifteen yards downfield. So they won't go downfield. This is very bad against the 49ers, since the way to beat them is by winning matchups on the outside.

That said, expect a big day from Brandon Marshall, who could get 20 targets, easily, as the only Bears receiver capable of winning a 1 on 1 matchup with a tackling dummy.

4
by In_Belichick_We... :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 4:34pm

Even Andy couldn't spice up this game for us.
The only thing I have to look forward to is whether SF can excute traps effectively.
This game still has a chance of being better than the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game (and should be more visually appealing without striped unis).

5
by chitown_jim (not verified) :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 4:39pm

@ferguson...if alshon plays it'll be 1st game back from a broken hand so probably won't be a catching machine. Also Rodriguez (at least this year) is only a halfback; per local media he isn't even in the tight end meeting rooms through the week all year.

10
by Marko :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 7:54pm

The last part about Rodriguez is not true. He hasn't been playing halfback; he's been playing fullback, although the role they really envision for him is as more of an H-back. And he has been in the tight end meeting room. He started the year as a tight end and was wearing #88 in the preseason. At first they really wanted to flex him out to use as a receiving tight end, not as a traditional tight end lined up right next to the tackle. He caught several passes and had some nice runs after the catch as a tight end in the preseason. Then shortly before the season started, they shifted him to his current role and changed his number to 48.

I saw an article this week in which Rodriguez was quoted as saying he knows all the tight end plays and has been in the meetings with the tight ends.

6
by supershredder :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 4:59pm

You could also say the Bears second lost was because they played a top 5 defense that showed just how bad Chicago's offense is with or without Cutler. But, hey, not like the Texans had anything to do with that Bears loss.

7
by tuluse :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 5:19pm

I think this game comes down to which offense makes less mistakes. Neither offense is likely to move very much, but one is probably going to throw a pick or fumble at an inopportune moment.

11
by Marko :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 7:59pm

Agreed, although I would look at it from the perspective of which defense makes the big play(s) and makes the opposing offense make the big mistake(s). I wouldn't be surprised to see a defensive TD or two tonight.

And don't forget special teams. A big special teams play could be pivotal.

8
by akn :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 5:41pm

49ers rushing defense for the last month: 149, 136, 113, and 159 yards allowed, with 100-yard rushers in 3/4 of those games. Willis and Bowman have been having just as much trouble shedding blocks recently as Urlacher.

And while both the Bears and Lions play 4-3 schemes, the Bears don't play a run-porous wide-9 set up front.

14
by Tyler (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2012 - 2:28am

They play something porous up front (tonight at least!)

9
by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 11/19/2012 - 7:26pm

The niners kind of screwed up by giving Smith all the first team reps this week instead of hedging their bets and giving time to Kaepernick.

13
by theslothook :: Tue, 11/20/2012 - 1:39am

Karl, I've already had a full helping of crow tonight, please no more sir, i'm stuffed

15
by Scott P. (not verified) :: Tue, 11/20/2012 - 9:46am

Now that Kaepernick has burst onto the NFL scene, I am going to lobby once more to have his official nickname be Copernicus (since Copernicus is the Latin form of Kaepernick).

16
by bravehoptoad :: Tue, 11/20/2012 - 10:41am

Heh. It is more than usually funny to read this preview. I mean, a lot of them look silly in retrospect, but this one particularly so. Not Andy's fault...who saw that coming?

It sure is exciting to see the 49ers with a QB who can actually be daring. I want to like Smith more than I do, but he's felt like the limiting factor on that offense the past couple of years. Stick him on the Seahawks or the Dolphins and it's just hard to imagine him doing any great shakes.

But Colin Kaepernick...well, I was jumping up and down, hooting, with my 10-month-old in my arms. She started squealing, too. I DID NOT see that coming from what I thought (everyone thought) would be a 12-9 kind of game.

17
by Jimmy :: Tue, 11/20/2012 - 11:07am

The Bears got owned just about every way possible. Those grizzled prospecters will be picking bits of the Bears they devoured out of their teeth for weeks.