Grant Cohn: 5 things 49ers must do if they want to beat the Bears
Here's the short version:
The Bears probably will beat the 49ers this Sunday.
Chicago's defense is too good. The final score should be 23-16. End of analysis.
Here's the long version:
Nick Mullens gives the 49ers a legitimate chance. He's on fire. Leads the league in passing yards since Week 13. His teammates feel confident in him because he exudes nothing but confidence in himself. He gives the 49ers hope. And hope makes them play hard, even though they're 4-10.
The 49ers absolutely can beat the Bears if they follow my five instructions offered in a well-meaning spirit, as they did last week and won.
Here's what the 49ers have to do to:
1. Protect Mullens better.
Mullens' skeptics say he's a product of Kyle Shanahan's offensive scheme, which supposedly makes life so easy for quarterbacks. To which I say, how well did C.J. Beathard do with Shanahan's offense?
The Mullens skeptics also overlook just how much punishment Mullens has endured while still making throws and averaging 292.3 passing yards per game.
According to the NFL's official stats, Mullens has taken 43 hits the past four games. That's a ton of hits. Last week, the Seahawks landed multiple full-frontal bullseye body shots on Mullens and he got up every time.
Mullens won't make it through Sunday if he takes those shots from the Bears. That team is violent, and Mullens is small.
The Bears defense has 45 sacks this season. Their Pro Bowl defensive tackle, Akiem Hicks, will face 49ers left guard Laken Tomlinson, who has allowed three sacks the past two games.
And there's Khalil Mack, the All-Pro defensive end the Raiders so graciously gifted the Bears before the season. He will face 49ers rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey.
McGlinchey doesn't bend well - he's 6'8”. He's vulnerable against edge rushers who dip low, drop their inside shoulder and skate around the corner like Olympic speed skaters. Consider Mack a speed skater deluxe.
McGlinchey and the rest of the offensive linemen will have to play out of their minds all game. If the Bears sack Mullens three times in the first quarter, game over.
2. Mullens must play faster than he ever has.
Two weeks ago, the Bears defense faced Jared Goff, and made him look like some guy who wandered on the field from the stands.
He seemed terrified in the pocket. Threw wild passes before his receivers even turned their heads. Tossed four interceptions and posted a microscopic quarterback rating of 19.1. And Goff is a very good quarterback.
Last week, the Bears faced all-time-great quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who didn't do much better than Goff. Rodgers spent most of the game fleeing pressure and throwing the ball out of bounds. His quarterback rating was 68.9.
Now, it's Mullens' turn to face the Bears.
They will force him to throw quicker than he ever has on a consistent basis. Won't let him sit back, survey the coverage and eat a Subway sandwich while the patterns develop.
Mullens needs to speed up the internal clock that tells him when to pass.
And Kyle Shanahan needs to help him. Needs to call quicker passes. No seven-step-drop play action while Dante Pettis runs an 18-yard in route over the middle. That kind of play takes too long. It invites the Bears to thrash Mullens and win the game.
3. Mullens must find single coverage.
I observed Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for four seasons with the 49ers. I have a feel for his coaching style. Here's what he will try to do on Sunday.
A. Shut down the 49ers' run game and make their offense one-dimensional. The Bears have a terrific run defense which allows just 3.8 yards per carry - fifth best in the NFL.
B. When the 49ers abandon the run game and start using three-wide-receiver formations, Fangio will counter with a Nickel defense (five defensive backs), and cover Shanahan's favorite targets - George Kittle and Pettis - each with two defensive backs.
Fangio won't let Kittle and Pettis beat him.
Mullens must find a receiver who has single coverage, and that receiver must get open. Fast.
Kendrick Bourne almost certainly will face single coverage, so he's a possibility. No reason to double that guy.
He seems to drop as many passes as he catches.
He needs to raise his game this Sunday. Kittle and Pettis will face constant double teams until Bourne or someone else gets open.
4. The defense must contain the Bears' run-pass options.
Last week, the 49ers faced a Seahawks offense that runs the ball for the sake of running it. Even if it should pass based on the look the opposing defense presents. Even if the run almost surely will fail.
The Bears don't run dead runs. They run run-pass options, or “RPOs.” Here's how they work:
Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky lines up in the shotgun and stares at one “conflicted” defender, usually an inside linebacker who is responsible for a zone in pass coverage.
The center snaps the ball to the quarterback. He holds it out for the running back, who runs into a hole and tries to draw the conflicted defender to come up, fill that hole, vacate his zone and create a throwing lane behind him for the quarterback.
If the linebacker fills the hole, the quarterback pulls the ball away from the running back and throws a six-yard pass over the middle. If the linebacker stays in his zone, the running back takes the ball and runs for a six-yard gain.
The RPO is the foundation of the Bears offense.
The best way to defend it is NOT to use zone coverage. The zone creates the conflict. Forces defenders to stare at the quarterback and make decisions. Man-to-man coverage makes defenders stare at receivers, so defenders don't peak in the backfield and get faked out.
The 49ers can win if they shut down the RPO, because Trubisky struggles on the road. He has thrown just four touchdown passes and three interceptions away from Soldier Field this season.
5. Someone must make a big play.
Last week, Mullens played the game of his life and it still wasn't enough. The 49ers offense scored just 19 points against the Seahawks even though Mullens' quarterback rating was 110.6.
The 49ers would have lost had rookie Richie James not returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. He won the game for the 49ers.
The Bears are better than the Seahawks. So, the Niners will need another big play for a touchdown from someone unlikely. Someone like Richie James. Or a defender who intercepts a pass. The 49ers have intercepted only two this season. The Bears have intercepted 26.
Mullens can't beat the Bears by himself. Who will help him?
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and pressdemocrat.com in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.