Three keys and prediction: Bears at 49ers

USA Today

Three keys and prediction: Bears at 49ers

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.

Tarik Cohen was Bears' best offensive player vs. Rams

Tarik Cohen was Bears' best offensive player vs. Rams

The Chicago Bears offense was uninspiring once again Sunday night in the team's 17-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. While they could've had another six points had kicker Eddy Pineiro connected on two early-game field goals, it still wouldn't have been enough to win the most important game of the season.

After 11 weeks (10 games), the Bears rank 28th in points per game with 16.9. To put their brutal season in perspective, the New York Jets, who've been atrocious this year, are averaging 16.4 points per game.

Essentially, Matt Nagy has coached Chicago's offense as effectively as Adam Gase has coached the Jets'. 

Still, it's worth acknowledging strong individual performances in the midst of an overall letdown, and in Week 11's loss to the Rams, it was running back Tarik Cohen who stood tallest among his Bears' offensive teammates.

Cohen posted Chicago's highest Pro Football Focus grade on offense with a 74.3. He logged 45 snaps, 10 more than David Montgomery, and was effective when he touched the ball. He totaled 74 yards and a touchdown on 14 touches en route to being the Bears' most effective running back against a tough Rams defensive front. Montgomery managed just 31 yards on 14 carries.

Cohen hasn't had the kind of season that was expected from his role as a do-it-all offensive weapon; he's way behind his normal pace of production as both a runner and receiver. Cohen had 99 carries for 444 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 71 catches for 725 yards and five scores in 2018. He's on pace for just 186 rushing yards and 402 receiving yards this season.

Still, Sunday night's effort was a step in the right direction for him and a sign that he may continue to get more touches as the season comes to a close.

Nagy took hard look at his duties as Bears offensive play-caller, opts to retain that role

Nagy took hard look at his duties as Bears offensive play-caller, opts to retain that role

During the Bears’ 17-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, quarterback Mitch Trubisky suffered a hip pointer, an injury that involved monitoring by the coaching and medical staffs from halftime on. Kicker Eddy Pineiro was missing field goals to the point of appearing to affect his coach’s decision-making. The offense was sputtering – again – and the defense, after some early takeaway success, appeared to be sagging emotionally. There were issues at tight end. Aaron Donald had to be accounted for and blocked.

All of which and more was on the head of Matt Nagy, now all of 27 games into being an NFL head coach, and who late in the game needed to stop and have a heart-to-heart, heads-together talk with his quarterback about how he was feeling.

The “and more” on Nagy’s head continues to include calling the individual plays for his bad-and-getting-worse offense.

So Nagy spent a chunk of his morning taking a hard look at whether defenses are on to him, presumably personally as well as schematically. And some of that hard look was whether he indeed should continue being the play-caller in the wake of the offense running 74 plays, netting 7 points and failing to gain 300 total yards for the ninth time in 10 games.

For now, after that look in the mirror, Nagy will remain in control of the play sheet.

“What I would say is this,” he said, acknowledging that if he felt he was the problem, “I’ll be the first to tell you, then we need to be better or if there’s a rhythm to something.

“I have zero ego and I have zero care of giving play-call duties to somebody else. I really do not care about that, and if that’s what we feel like from going through it that that’s what we need to do, then I would do that, I really would.

“But when you go through the tape and you look at things and you know schematically where we’re at and what we’re calling and when we’re calling it…. There’s without a doubt a few plays in that game that I would go back and say, ‘You know what, that’s our fault. We didn’t scheme it right,’ and that starts with me. And I need to be able to accept that and know how do I fix that. But we’ll do everything we can … we’re turning over every stone to get this thing right.”

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