By Jeff Joniak–
(CBS) The Bears (5-6) host the 49ers on Sunday at noon at Soldier Field. Here are my keys to the game.
Offense: Build on balance
A Bears offense that patiently works out its kinks over the course of a game has evolved into a dangerous fourth-quarter unit, as Chicago is difficult to put away.
One of the main reasons is the play of quarterback Jay Cutler. Every receiver and back has become a weapon, and with that comes growing individual confidence. Cutler’s calm approach throughout the game, at the line of scrimmage, inside and outside the pocket and his ball security has blended with a heavy dose of run plays and ball control. Cutler meets a 49ers defense led by powerful inside linebacker Navarro Bowman and outside linebackers Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks. They have combined for 12.5 sacks, including 6.5 by Lynch.
Bowman is San Francisco’s leading tackler and the centerpiece of a fairly stout 3-4 run defense. However, the Seahawks gashed the 49ers with the run twice, as did Todd Gurley of the Rams.
The San Francisco cornerbacks tackle in this scheme, and Tramaine Brock and Kenneth Acker have combined for 90 tackles, six interceptions, and 14 pass breakups. They aren’t big corners, so they will be challenged by the size, reach and wingspan of Bears receiver Alshon Jeffrey. Chicago receiver Marquess Wilson is out with a foot injury, opening the door for more playing time for Joshua Bellamy, Cameron Meredith and Marc Mariani.
San Francisco runs a wide variety of zone defenses, so finding those windows with accuracy is critical for Chicago’s passing game. The 49ers may be permitting nearly 400 yards of offense on average, but they’re coming together. Last week, the 49ers held the the Cardinals — the NFL’s top scoring offense — to 19 points. Carson Palmer didn’t throw a touchdown pass. However, the overall body of work shows a defense giving up 8.13 yards per pass (29th in NFL), 17 touchdown passes and a 100.5 opponent quarterback rating (29th).
Defense: Halt the ground game
The Bears defense deserves special recognition for its overall stinginess. It’s preventing big deficits by bending but not breaking at key moments. It’s also creating timely turnovers.
The Bears haven’t allowed a third-quarter touchdown in the last eight games, during which time they’ve permitted only 45 second-half points, the fewest in the NFL. Team success has followed, as the Bears are 5-3 during that stretch.
The 49ers are without workhorse back Carlos Hyde, but they will still try to establish the run to set up play-action and boot legs. Admittedly, the Bears aren’t pleased with their run defense, which has slipped to 29th. Shutting it down against the 49ers will be critical.
The 49ers are quarterbacked by Blaine Gabbert, who’s coming off an impressive performance against the Cardinals. He’s playing better and tougher than he did as a young player in Jacksonville. Gabbert’s making smarter decisions and has above-average accuracy. Gabbert gets rid of it quickly, utilizing short routes, crossing patterns, deep outs and go-routes. His weapons include crafty veteran Anquan Boldin, the team’s leading receiver with 44 catches. The 49ers’ speed threat is Torrey Smith, and tight ends Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek have combined for five touchdown catches.
The 49ers have a difficult time scoring, with only 152 offensive points, last in the league with an NFL-low 14 combined touchdowns, 12 of which have been scored inside the 30. That all points to only a handful of big plays. Not surprisingly, San Francisco’s 31 plays of 20-plus yards ranks last in the league.
Special team: Make one/prevent one big play
Improving coverage units have propped up the Bears’ special teams unit. Players like Bellamy and Sherrick McManis are first on the scene to make tackles and limit production. Coordinator Jeff Rodgers has tweaked the return game the last two weeks, inserting veteran Deonte Thompson on kickoffs and keeping Marc Mariani on punts. It would be great if each week the Bears’ special teams unit could make one big play that impacts the game, while at the same time preventing one.
The 49ers’ coverage units are solid and haven’t allowed a return touchdown. Rookie fifth-round punter Bradley Pinion out of Clemson is doing a solid job in averaging 40.2 net yards with 18 punts inside the 20. He’s 21. Kicker Phil Dawson is 40 and still coming up big, converting 18 of his 19 field-goal tries and all 12 of his extra points. He’s also hit all three of his 50-plus-yard kicks.
Intangibles: Embrace the love
After playing road games in six of the last nine weeks, the Bears return home after securing their signature win over the Packers. The city is buzzing once again, with renewed playoff scenarios with five games to go. I’ve stated this repeatedly: This 2015 Bears outfit is a likable team, one that’s proving to be resilient, competitive, blue-collar and stubborn.
Twenty-four different players have started on defense. Only 2.2 percent of their snaps have been played by a common lineup, second-fewest in the league. The Bears have started 21 different players on offense. The fans have been treated to dramatic finishes all season, some ending well, some not.
The Bears are fun to watch, and they will be greeted with a lot of love from the home crowd Sunday against the 49ers. The Bears’ job is embrace it and reward the home crowd with a decisive and thorough performance.
Jeff Joniak is the play-by-play announcer for the Bears broadcasts on WBBM Newsradio 780. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJoniak.