The San Francisco 49ers do not throw the football very well, based on combined statistics for the year. They run the ball only slightly better, and have been wracked by injuries at running back.
The Bears need to beware of a trap, however, one with some possible complexity owing to a domino effect. By improving their passing offense with one major personnel move, the 49ers have become respectable at throwing and, by extension, potentially more of a threat running it by creative scheming.
The Bears were hurt the past two games by scheming of the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers. With quarterback Blaine Gabbert, San Francisco becomes more capable of scheming to have the Bears in their preferred 3-4 alignment and then do damage throwing, something they weren’t able to do with an inept Colin Kaepernick.
Gabbert replaced Kaepernick after game eight and since then the 49ers have been able to throw. Gabbert has averaged 256 passing yards in his three starts. That would place him right in the middle of NFL passers if he had enough attempts to qualify, and ahead of Jay Cutler (251), Aaron Rodgers (246) and Cam Newton (224), among others.
Defensively, the Bears are No. 2 in passing yards allowed per game but 29th in rushing yards. The 49ers, for the year, are 31st in passing yardage.
But the body of work was primarily that of Kaepernick, the 28th-ranked passer before he was replaced by Gabbert, the 10th-overall pick of the 2011 draft by Jacksonville, the second quarterback taken after Newton.
“Pretty familiar with him coming out,” said coach John Fox. “I know he's very athletic. Some of our guys weren't quite as familiar with him until you turn on the tape and look at how he avoids the rush, and scrambles, and the athleticism and speed that he has. On top of, he's become more acclimated each game, and obviously has performed better in the passing game.”
The problem for the Bears has been stopping the run, and the presence of Gabbert, with 90-plus passer ratings his past two games, complicates that considerably. With Kaepernick’s anemic passing, the Bears could focus on the run with relative impunity and get their run defense turned around with less concern over Kaepernick. Gabbert adds a worrisome dimension.
“They’re still running a lot of the same stuff they were running with ‘Kaep’ prior,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “Some of the stuff they’ve backed off of. It’s still the same offense, so you need to look at all their games and see what they’ve done for the entire season."
The Bears’ past two opponents have been able to scheme to exploit personnel matchups that led to massive rushing totals.
The Packers, for example, run the preponderance of their 1st-and-10 plays out of three-receiver personnel groupings. They run the ball 45 percent of the time out of those ostensibly pass-oriented settings and against defenses typically in lighter-weight nickel packages.
The Broncos, by comparison, use two primary personnel groupings on 1st-and-10 plays: the “11” personnel with three wide receivers and one tight end, and “12” personnel with two tight ends and two receivers. The Broncos run 47 percent of the time out of those two primary groupings on 1st-and-10. Bears linebackers noted the Broncos’ use of tight ends as receivers out of those packages, netting 10 catches for 137 yards, adding to the difficulty in apparent run personnel.
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Those offenses trampled the Bears, for 170 and 177 yards, respectively.
“People have different packages,” Fox said. “I think this game is definitely about matchups. Sometimes good for you, sometimes not so good. So you do try to dictate and create as many of the positive matchups as you can.”