Grant Cohn: In game 49ers should win, three questions they need to answer

The Bears' depleted roster should mean the 49ers will face their first less-talented team this season.|

I have just three questions this week for the 49ers, but they’re big questions. The only three that really matter.

Question No. 1. Can San Francisco beat a less-talented team?

I’d be absolutely shocked if the 49ers lose to the Bears Sunday in Chicago. Or anywhere, ever. Because as bad as the 1-10 Niners are, the 2-9 Bears are worse.

Here are some numbers you should know: Chicago currently has 17 players on Injured Reserve, two players serving four-game suspensions for performance-enhancing-drug use and seven players who are listed as “questionable” for the upcoming game. That makes 26 players who might not play this Sunday - almost half of the Bears’ 53-man roster from Week 1.

More numbers: The Bears are missing nine starters. We’re talking one starting defensive lineman - Lamarr Houston. Both starting inside linebackers - Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan. One cornerback - Kyle Fuller, the best corner on the team. Both starting wide receivers - Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White. The starting tight end - Zach Miller. One starting offensive lineman - Kyle Long. And the starting quarterback - Jay Cutler.

It gets worse for the Bears.

They also won’t have their backup quarterback, Brian Hoyer, who broke his arm against the Packers Week 7 and is out for the year.

Nor will the Bears have their backup backup quarterback, Connor Shaw, who broke his leg during the preseason and is out for the year as well.

The Bears have to start their backup backup backup quarterback, Matt Barkley, whom they signed midseason and has started only six games in the NFL. His career passer rating is a grotesque 51.7.

This team is not the Bears. They’re the Bad News Bears. The Replacement Bears. For the first time all season, the Niners get to play a team even less talented than they are.

That’s no exaggeration. The 49ers have the advantage at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, inside linebacker, safety and cornerback. Seven of the 10 position groups. I give the Bears a narrow edge at running back, defensive line and outside linebacker.

The Niners should win this game and end their 10-game losing streak, which most people have blamed 100 percent on general manager Trent Baalke. People have said Baalke hasn’t given Chip Kelly enough talent to win. Said it’s unfair and downright impossible to judge Kelly with such a poor roster.

If he can’t beat the freaking Bears, you can judge him. If the Niners lose, and I don’t think they will, no one can blame Baalke for this one.

Question No. 2. Can Chip Kelly outcoach Vic Fangio?

Kelly may or may not be a good NFL coach - he still has so much to prove. Fangio, meanwhile, has nothing to prove. He is one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL. Period. His defense currently ranks 11th despite all the injuries and suspensions.

Kelly’s offense ranks 28th.

The last time these two coaches faced each other - 2014, Week 4 - Kelly’s offense scored zero points against Fangio’s defense and didn’t move the ball past its own 43 until the fourth quarter with 4:29 left.

Of course, Kelly and Fangio were coaching different teams then. Kelly was coaching the Eagles and Fangio was coaching the 49ers’ defense and both teams were loaded with top-end talent. Now, neither coach has top-end talent, although Kelly’s team has more talent than Fangio’s, as I explained above.

Sunday’s game largely will come down to scheme and game-planning. Kelly’s scheme tends to work best early in games, because his up-tempo offense is unique and hard to simulate in practice for the opposing team. Opposing defenses usually spend one quarter adjusting to the pace.

But Fangio’s defense may be ready for it from the opening kickoff. That’s because Fangio is brilliant and understands how to prepare his players for Kelly’s offense.

Here’s what Fangio does:

Instead of making his starting defense face one Scout Team offense during practice like he normally does, Fangio makes his defense face two - Scout Team A and Scout Team B. While Scout Team A is at the line of scrimmage facing the starting defense, Scout Team B huddles on the field directly behind Scout Team A.

Then, Scout Team A runs its play. And when the play is over, Scout Team A runs off the field and Scout Team B runs to the line of scrimmage. Then, Scout Team B huddles behind Scout Team A, and so on. All of this replicates Kelly’s rapid-fire offense. In this way, Fangio prepares his defense for the pace and surprise-factor of what Kelly is doing.

Does Kelly have an answer for Fangio’s method of game preparation? Does Kelly have any new wrinkles? Or will he run the same old stuff and play right into Fangio’s hand?

Question No. 3. Can Colin Kaepernick play well in a close game?

Now it’s time to talk about the 49ers’ quarterback.

Some people will have you believe Kaepernick is playing better than ever, even though he hasn’t won a single game through six starts this season.

Kaepernick isn’t totally to blame for his 0-6 record. But, he’s partially to blame, and here’s why.

When the games have been close in the fourth quarter, he has folded. Every time.

Look at his past four starts. Against the Saints Week 9, the 49ers trailed by eight points at the end of the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick completed 6-of-12 passes for 62 yards and his passer rating was 65.3. He flopped.

Week 10 against the Cardinals, the 49ers trailed by seven points at the end of the third quarter. Then in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick completed 4-of-8 passes for 46 yards and his passer rating was 67.7. Flopped.

Week 11 against the Patriots, the 49ers trailed by only three points at the end of the third quarter - this game was winnable. But in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick pulled another floperoo. Completed only 6-of-16 passes for 62 yards and his passer rating was 70.3.

And that brings us to last week against the Dolphins, when the Niners trailed by 10 points - two scores - at the end of the third quarter. With 11:31 left, Miami took a 17-point lead - three scores. Then, the Dolphins’ defense started using soft coverages, more or less conceding short passes and forcing the Niners to move the ball slowly and use up clock.

Against this soft fourth-quarter Miami defense, Kaepernick was fantastic. Boy, was he good. He completed 15-of-22 passes for 125 yards and his passer rating was 94.3. He was the king of garbage time, although he still lost.

This Sunday against the Bears, Kaepernick almost certainly won’t face a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit. He should find himself in a close game. Will he play well when it really matters, or will he pull another floperoo?

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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