Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The 49ers take on the Monsters of the Midway for the fifth straight season, this time with Chicago traveling west to the cozy confines of Levi’s Stadium. The Bears are fresh off a 24-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers, a win that clinched the Bears the NFC North title for the first time since 2010. The 49ers on the other hand are riding an improbable two-game winning streak at the expense of the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. We’ll dive in and take a look at some things to keep your eye on during this Sunday’s match up.
Former 49er favorite Vic Fangio has turned Chicago’s defense into a feared unit like the ones in the 1980s under Buddy Ryan. While Ryan found success with his stifling 46 defense, Fangio instead employs as aggressive 3-4 front with a pattern match coverage style on the back end. The Bears’ defense currently has nine players that rank in the top 25 at their respective positions according to Pro Football Focus. Leading the defense from the linebacker position is rookie Roquan Smith; not to be outdone is outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who leads the team with 12.5 sacks (2.5 sacks more than the entire Raiders team) and a PFF rating of 90.3.
The 49ers on the other hand have taken some positive steps in the last two weeks. Solomon Thomas played a season high 65 defensive snaps against the Seahawks last week with 38 coming from the interior. He produced two pressures from the inside and forced a key Seattle penalty. Unsurprisingly he turned in one of the best games of his short career, posting an 80.9 PFF grade from the interior. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead are becoming a force. Buckner now has 11 sacks, the highest total by a 49ers defender since Aldon Smith had 19 1/2 in 2012. Armstead is already a stout run defender, but he’s starting to do the small things that don’t fill up a stat sheet; over the last few weeks Armstead has been steadily taking on two blockers at the point of attack. When Armstead is paired next to Thomas or Buckner on the inside, it allows Thomas to use his athleticism and Buckner to use his strength, while taking on only one offensive lineman, making the job markedly easier for both. While some might balk at Armstead’s price tag next season (looking at you Matt Bedwell), just over $9 million guaranteed, if his play continues through the end of the season, he’d be a bargain at that price.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon had taken major strides in the last four weeks, but on Seattle’s first drive he suffered a knee sprain and was eventually placed on season-ending injured reserve. Rookie Tarvarius Moore replaced Witherspoon and was immediately targeted by Russell Wilson, giving up a quick touchdown to Doug Baldwin. But Moore settled down and played well, forcing two crucial incompletions on Seattle’s overtime drive. Moore made up only one third of the rookies playing in the secondary versus Seattle; Marcell Harris made his third start in place of injured Jaquiski Tartt, and D.J. Reed made his second start at nickel-cornerback in place of K’waun Williams. Harris and Reed have both shown solid improvement each week.
Points on the Board
Mitch Trubisky isn’t great. That’s not me being mean, it’s just true. In his sophomore season Trubisky is the 32nd ranked quarterback according to PFF with a season grade of 60.0. The Chicago front office brought in weapons this offseason to take the pressure off of him, namely Allen Robinson and Trey Burton. With those two pass catchers paired with running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, Bears head coach Matt Nagy expected to have a high scoring offense to pair with Fangio’s stout defense. But so far, it’s been Fangio’s defense leading the way and pulling Nagy’s offense along for the ride.
Oh man, Nick Mullens. While the undrafted free agent is playing well, it’s not exactly the “Mullens era” as some writers would like you to believe. In his six starts the Niners have posted a respectable 3-3 record, and Mullens has 1,754 yards through the air to go along with 10 touchdowns to six interceptions. He’s been aided with a top-10 rushing attack and arguably the best tight end in football George Kittle. Kyle Shanahan’s scheme has opened up passing lanes for Mullens to work with and given receivers ample space to run after the catch. Rookie receiver Dante Pettis has stepped up over the last four weeks, with 17 receptions for 338 yards and four touchdowns, project those numbers over a 16 week schedule and that’s 68 catches for 1,352 yards and 16 touchdowns.
In their Sunday night match up against the Rams, Fangio deployed a 3-3-5 defense, practically daring Sean McVay to beat them in the air. Will he send out the same alignment to try and stifle Shanahan’s offense? No matter the outcome, watching Shanahan scheme against Fangio is something every NFL fan would dream of.
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