The 1-10 49ers and the 3-8 Bears face off this Sunday in a match-up that many NFL fans could only consider uninspiring. Call it what you will: Battle of the bottom dwellers, race-to-the # 2 pick, etc.
Despite this, several juicy story lines punctuate this contest, chief among them of course, is that the Jimmy Garoppolo era has officially begun. After ‘Jimmy G’ tantalized the Faithful with a stone cold pocket presence, light-as-Tinker Bell-feet, and a lighting quick release in extremely limited action last weekend, fans are all in and clamoring for more.
There is also the interesting dynamic between the opposing quarterbacks, as the 49ers face a Bears team led by rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky, who could easily have begun his career by donning the red and gold, had John Lynch and company elected to snag him with the 2nd pick in the 2017 draft. Instead, the Niners’ brass dealt the pick to the Bears, picked up Garoppolo mid-season, and here we are today. Incidentally, Garoppolo is a Chicago area native, and is making his 49ers debut against the Chicago Bears–much like another new and exciting 49ers quarterback-Colin Kaepernick, did long ago.
But despite all the fluff around this game, it remains a contest between two mediocre teams in need of significant talent upgrades. It is also a game the 49ers can win. The 49ers score more points per game than the Bears (17 vs. 16.1), are ranked higher in total offense (21st vs 28th), and are similar to the Bears in many other major statistical categories. If this team gets back to basics, plays sound, fundamental football and doesn’t beat themselves, they should find success. Some keys to Niners glory below:
Control the line of scrimmage and contain Jordan Howard
This game will be in Chicago, in chilly weather, between two teams that struggle in the passing game. This sets the table for Chicago to have success in one area where there is a major disparity between these teams: the 49ers rush defense ranks 30th in the NFL in total yards allowed, while the Bears’ rush offense ranks 8th. This has the makings of Jordan Howard domination all over it. Howard has been a bright spot for the Bears this year, having rushed for 847 yards at a healthy 4.3 yards per carry. The Niners’ rush defense is giving up nearly 130 rushing yards per game this season, and seems fond of giving up career-best rushing games to unknown running backs that are not as good as Howard (see Marlon Mack). If this trend continues, it will be a long afternoon for the Red and Gold.
Control the clock, control the game
The 49ers’ time of possession this year stands at 27:36 per game, and it sure as heck ain’t because they are putting up touchdowns so fast that they don’t stay on the field. Yes, Robert Salah’s defense “bends” quite a bit, which leads to long stints on the field, but that tells only part of the story. A frustrating feature of 49ers games this year has been the tendency of Kyle Shanahan to abandon the run early when the 49ers are still in the game. The team also leads the league in passing attempts per game. Meanwhile, Carlos Hyde is averaging 4.1 yards per carry this year, but has only seen more than 16 carries in a single game twice (vs. the Rams and Giants). Hyde’s counterpart, Matt Breida, averages 4.4 yards per carry, yet has only cracked double digit carries once this season. Assuming the 49ers are in the game early, they must stick with the run, feed the twin beasts, control the clock, and keep the ball.
If you can’t take the ball away, then for the love of God don’t give the ball away
The 49ers are -4 in turnover differential this year. They are tied for 8th in the league for most giveaways (17) but have only managed 13 takeaways, which is good for 23rd in the league. It’s safe to say that especially if combined with the factors outlined above, the Niners will not win this game if they lose the turnover battle.
Backwards is the wrong way
San Francisco sits solidly among the top 5 most penalized teams in the league this year, and as a result have lost the equivalent of 6.5 football fields in yards. That’s not gonna work.
If this feels like football common sense 101, it’s because it is. Yes, the 49ers are injury ridden, talent deprived and young, but they are facing a decidedly mediocre team that should not dominate them in any one area. The 49ers must prevent an all-out ground assault by the Bears, and the pass protection must be halfway decent (this should be helped by Garoppolo’s quick release as well as the potential return of Trent Brown). If the offense can get the ground game flowing, the play-action working, hold onto the ball and extend drives, there is no reason our boys should not come away from Soldier Field with a win.