This Sunday the Bears might think they’re looking in the mirror when they line up across from the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams are going through strikingly similar struggles: injuries are piling up to key players, the offenses aren’t scoring enough points, once-fearsome defenses have had up-and-down seasons, and both rookie QBs have gone through some growing pains over the first half of the year. Will this help the Bears prepare for Sunday? Time will tell. But if they can lock down these three keys, they’ll put themselves in a great position to pull back to .500 with a win.
SHORE UP RUN DEFENSE
When the Bears are able to dominate on defense, it usually starts by bottling up the run game on first and second down. That forces opposing offenses into obvious passing downs, which allows Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn to turn loose after the quarterback. That, in turn, helps the team generate both sacks and takeaways. But over the past two weeks一 with Akiem Hicks hobbled, and then out一 the Bears have struggled to stop opposing running backs. The Bucs, who aren’t known for their run game, managed 5.9 YPC on 31 carries. Against the Packers, the defense surrendered 5.0 YPC, also on 31 carries. Giving up those kinds of numbers on the ground makes stopping any passing attack tough, but against Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers that task becomes nearly impossible.
The 49ers do not field the same dynamic passing attack as either of those teams, but they do run the ball well, and even better than each the Bucs and the Packers. The key difference here is that if the Bears do manage to shut down the 49ers run game, they have a good chance of shutting down the whole offense. Behind Deebo Samuel, who has 648 receiving yards, George Kittle ranks second with 227 yards… and Kittle hasn’t played since Week 4, and isn’t expected to return on Sunday. Behind Kittle is fullback Kyle Juszczyk with 135 yards. If the Bears can make the 49ers one-dimensional, then takeaway Samuel on passing downs, the defense can feast.
GET SOME TAKEAWAYS AND DON’T GIVE IT AWAY
This feels like something that should be a given every week, but a stark pattern has emerged as we approach the season’s midpoint: The Bears are 3-0 when they win turnover battle, and they’re 0-4 when they lose or tie the turnover battle. One easy explanation is that the offense is simply not good enough yet to keep up with the rest of the league without extra chances, shorter fields, and of course fewer chances for the opposing offense. Right now the Bears have the sixth-fewest first downs across the league, and four of the teams below them have already had their bye week so they’ve played one fewer game. By creating takeaways, especially in enemy territory, the defense can put Justin Fields into striking range immediately, lessening that need for multiple first downs. If the defense can score on their own, even better.
The other side of the coin is that the offense must take care of the ball themselves. Fields has coughed up the ball a lot this season. His 4.6% interception rate is second highest in the league, behind only fellow rookie Zach Wilson. He’s also fumbled the ball six times, losing two of them. Not all of that is Fields’ fault though. At times the offensive line has whiffed on a block, giving opponents the opportunity to crush Fields in a few seconds and knock the ball loose. Other times he’s not been on the same page as his receivers, leading to an easy pick. Some of that comes with the territory of starting a rookie at quarterback, but some of it can be cleaned up. The Bears will need to play as cleanly as possible, so when those rookie mistakes do happen, they’re not part of a giant turnover snowball.
CATCH THE BALL
One of the reasons why the Bears have struggled to convert first downs is because their receivers have dropped passes. Across the NFL, the Bears have the eighth-highest drop rate at 5.5%, according to Pro Football Reference. There’s never a good time for a drop. Whether it’s first down on your own 20, or third down on your opponent’s 20, they can stall drives for the best offenses. Further, some of the interceptions that Fields has thrown this season have bounced off of his receiver’s hands. While those may not all qualify as “drops,” those moments are obviously huge turning points, and make this struggling offense’s job even harder. If the Bears offense can stay on the field longer, whether it’s by moving the chains or hanging on to the ball, it also helps the defense by keeping them off the field, and better rested.
FINAL SCORE PREDICTION
This could end up as a war of attrition between two struggling teams, but the way things stand I give the Bears two advantages in key areas: defense and quarterback. With Hicks trending towards returning to action, I believe he can provide the boost the run defense needs. And if looking for one man to make one big play to turn the tide of the game, Fields has the advantage over Jimmy Garoppolo.
Bears: 20, 49ers: 13