Brian Fremeau is back for his 10th season of college football advanced stats at Football Outsiders, with a lesson on average teams (like Arkansas State) and updated FEI projections for 2016.
19 Nov 2012
by Andy Benoit
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.
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.
17 comments, Last at 20 Nov 2012, 11:07am by Jimmy