By Jeff Joniak-
(WBBM) Here are Jeff Joniak’s “Keys to the Game” for the Bears as they travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers on Monday Night.
Offense: Break The Grip
“Break the grip” has a double meaning. With seven games to play, the offense must find a way to “break the grip” of inconsistent execution, while “breaking the grip” of a suffocating 49er defense. Five times in the first nine games the Bears have hurt themselves with first snap implosion leading to poor first quarter production. Hitting the 49ers early with points will not be easy, but the Rams went up 14-0 in San Francisco last week. The 49ers defense leads the NFL in points allowed per game at 14.1. They make you work for every blade of grass, allowing only 4.72 yards/play, which is second best in the league. They are top five in yards/carry in the run game at 3.75, and yards/pass attempt at 5.69. They also get off the field, third in the NFL in third down defense. They have All-Pro caliber players at every level of the unit. Jason Campbell will need to account for including pass rushing outside linebacker Aldon Smith, linebackers Navarro Bowman, and Patrick Willis, and safety Dashon Golden.
Defense: Prepare For Power
San Francisco’s running game is the most powerful in the NFL. The Bears will have to match power with power and load up the box to stop it. The 49ers average 5.61 yards/carry, which is 1.38 yards above the league average. They are creative with their run packages with multiple personnel groupings and a big dose of a heavy package, which includes a NT doubling as a fullback, and a defensive end doubling as a blocking tight end. They average a league best 170.2 rushing yards per game and they run it well on every down, including third down. The Bears adjusted and shut down Arian Foster in the second half last week, but now are faced with another rugged back in Frank Gore, who is averaging 5.4 yards/carry and five touchdowns. It’s one week at a time, but the Bears still have the league’s top back in Adrian Peterson twice plus Marshawn Lynch of Seattle, and Gore in the next four games.
Special Teams: Reducing Missed Opportunities
Lovie Smith continues to ask for more out of the return game. He’s been campaigning for weeks on this topic. The opportunities have been there for more production, but like the offense, it has been inconsistent. Devin Hester has yet to find his rhythm, particularly on punt returns, where he is 13th in the league. Hester’s longest kickoff return is 38 yards, albeit due to opposing kickers choosing to squib instead of kicking it deep. The 49ers have given up a punt return touchdown, and are 31st in the league allowing 28.8 yards on kickoff returns. Veteran punter Andy Lee has dropped 20 of his 37 punts inside the 20. Conversely, former 49er Blake Costanzo leads the Bears in special teams tackles and will eyeballing a pair of quality return units. On punts the 49ers average 12.4 yards/return, which ranks fifth best in the league, and 25.4 yards on kickoff returns which is 10th best. Ted Ginn Jr. is fifth in the league averaging 12.3 yards per punt return Kyle Williams has a long return of 94 yards on kickoff returns and is 12th in the league at 27.5 yards per return. It could come down to field goals. Robbie Gould is 18-of-21, David Akers has missed a league-high six field goals, and those have come on his last 15 attempts.
Intangibles: Matching Intensity
The Bears have proven to be a quality road team this season, averaging more than 40 points in four games, with three wins. Traditionally, they have not played well in San Francisco, winless in 27 years. There is nothing easy about getting ready to play at Candlestick Park. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is an emotional sparkplug and going against the team that drafted him will create some instant energy the Bears will need to match and surpass. The 49ers play hard and physical. So too must the Bears. There is uncertainty at quarterback for both teams due to concussions suffered by Jay Cutler and Alex Smith, so the defenses will be asked to carry the night. Once again, the defense that takes the ball away and stops the run will likely win the game. It promises to be quite the NFC battle, and a much bigger faceoff with playoff implications than in last Sunday’s meeting with the Houston Texans. This one is huge.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play voice of the Chicago Bears on WBBM Newsradio 780 & 105.9 FM. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffJoniak.