1. Chunk plays on offense. The 49ers’ defense doesn’t make a lot of sense, at least regarding this corner of their statistical profile: They’re, historically, one of the worst teams in league history when it comes to intercepting opposing quarterbacks, with just two (two!) all year. But they’ve also been prone to explosive plays, allowing a shade under four plays of 20 or more yards per game. They’ve allowed seven passing plays of 40 or more yards. This is a defense that, based on that low interception total, should be adept at keeping plays in front of them (think like the 2017 Bears’ defense, which only had eight interceptions but didn’t allow many explosive plays).
When the 49ers beat the Denver Broncos two weeks ago, Case Keenum’s longest pass was for 21 yards — and that was his only completion of 20 or more yards. Mitch Trubisky may need to push the ball downfield against this defense, something he either hasn’t done or hasn’t done successfully this month. This isn’t necessarily the game for him to “take what’s there” and plod along with short, easy completions. The Bears can win if he stays conservative and doesn’t turn the ball over, but Sunday should be a good opportunity for Trubisky to hit some open receivers downfield without necessarily having to worry about getting picked off.
2. Put a lid on Nick Mullens. Mullens has had some good success over his last three games, completing 63 percent of his passes for 1,021 yards with five touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 101.4 against the Broncos and Seahawks twice (Denver’s defense, for what it’s worth, ranks fourth in defensive DVOA). Not to take away from Mullens’ play with this, but: That coach Kyle Shanahan is getting this kind of production out of a longtime practice squad quarterback is incredibly impressive.
So the best way to scramble that success: Put Mullens under pressure. He’s still young, and while he’s shown to be adept ad picking apart blitzes (five touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 113.8, he’s thrown two interceptions and been sacked 13 times the 77 times he’s been under pressure on passing plays, per PFF. This will be a tough challenge for the Bears’ pass rush, though, when only four players are sent after Mullens: Left tackle Joe Staley is one of the best in the league, and right tackle Mike McGlinchey — a Harry Hiestand pupil at Notre Dame — is having a strong rookie season, too. That may mean Akiem Hicks needs to have a big game affecting the quarterback from the interior.
3. Prove your worth on the road. The Bears’ three road losses this year have largely been self-inflicted defeats. Against Green Bay, it was all those explosive plays allowed in the second half while the offense sputtered. In Miami, it was an avalanche of uncharacteristically poor tackling and an ill-timed Trubisky interception in the end zone. And earlier this month, the Bears shot themselves in the foot with some early Chase Daniel turnovers, late fumbles and then a handful of poor defensive plays. The point being: If the Bears play within themselves, this is a game they should win. Anything uncharacteristic will allow the 49ers to at least be competitive, if not emerge with a win that could all but end the Bears’ hopes of earning a first-round bye.
Prediction: Bears 29, 49ers 19. Matt Nagy talked up the Bears’ focus in the days after being crowned NFC North champions, and it’s a message that’s been well-received in the locker room. Even without Bryce Callahan, Eddie Jackson and Aaron Lynch, Vic Fangio’s defense has the talent advantage over the 49ers’ offense — and, for what it’s worth, Fangio held the NFC West’s other youthful genius play caller to six points earlier this month. On offense, the Bears have the advantage over the 49ers’ defense. We’ll give the special teams edge to the team with Robbie Gould, but that shouldn’t matter in a comfortable win for the Bears.