Lessons the 49ers Learned Against the Bears to Help Beat the Cardinals
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The 49ers corrected a four-game skid with a 33-22 win in Chicago on Halloween. The Bears jumped out to a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter, and after the 49ers failed to score a touchdown in the first half, it appeared San Francisco’s offensive woes would continue. The 49ers outscored the Bears 24-9 in the second half enroute to their third victory of the season.San Francisco can claw back to .500, and into wild card contention, with a win against the Arizona Cardinals. The good news is two-fold. First, the Cardinals are banged up after injuries to J.J. Watt and Kyler Murray. Second, the 49ers may have rediscovered their identity in Chicago. Let’s look at what the 49ers learned and what they can apply to their rematch against the Cardinals.
Win the Turnover Battle
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For the first time this season, the 49ers finished a game with the turnover differential in their favor. San Francisco did not commit a turnover in Week 8. Hometown kid Jimmy Garoppolo protected the ball and finished the game with zero interceptions and two rushing touchdowns. Rookie Elijah Mitchell has yet to fumble in 81 rushing attempts (knock on wood) and has earned the coaching staff’s trust. Josh Norman generated the lone turnover for the 49ers defense with a last-minute interception of Justin Fields. The importance of a positive turnover margin is emphasized by every coach. In a game filled with cliches, this one rings true.
Do What You Do
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The 49ers offense turned the clock back to 2019 with a strong performance against the Bears. What was the difference? Kyle Shanahan played to Jimmy Garoppolo’s strengths by utilizing play-action. The result: Garoppolo was a perfect 4-for-4 on play-action passing attempts. He averaged 11.5 yards per attempt on the way to a 322-yard effort and an impressive 100.6 passer rating.
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Play-action is more effective with a solid run game. Elijah Mitchell put together his second consecutive 100-yard game with a career-high 137 yards, as Shanahan attacked the Bears defense with outside zone and stretch run plays. The 49ers were less successful running between the tackles but the need for variety is understandable. Mitchell is averaging 5.3 yards per attempt in his rookie campaign. With the Cardinals allowing 120 rushing yards per game, the 49ers would be wise to go back to the well.
Don’t Commit Penalties
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The 49ers rank dead last in the NFL with an average of 77.1 penalty yards per game. By comparison, the Arizona Cardinals rank eighteenth at 55.0 yards per game.San Francisco’s penchant for defensive pass interference penalties was a recurring theme during their four-game losing streak. Through their first six games, the 49ers were flagged for pass interference 14 times. The 11 accepted penalties totaled 250 yards and countless more in lost momentum. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and defensive backs coach Cory Undlin appear to be correcting the issue. In Week 8, the 49ers limited Justin Fields to 175 passing yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception. They surrendered a season-low 55 total penalty yards with 25 yards assessed to the offense. Most importantly, San Francisco was not penalized for pass interference. With a more disciplined approach on both offense and defense, the 49ers have a chance at turning this season around.
Protect the Quarterback
The 49ers did not surrender a sack on Sunday. The Bears felt the absence of All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack. Even so, the 49ers’ offensive line deserves some credit. Per PFF, right guard Daniel Brunskill did not allow a hurry, and only left guard Laken Tomlinson allowed more than one. San Francisco’s o-line was so dominant that Chicago did not record a single hit on Garoppolo. The extra time in the pocket allowed the 49ers’ signal-caller to be highly efficient, especially on third downs, where he finished 5-of-6 for 144 yards. Sunday’s matchup against Chandler Jones and the Cardinals defense will be another test for a position group that is gaining momentum.
Special Teams Matters
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Aside from the 49ers shutting out their own punter, special teams had a huge impact in the victory. The 49ers relied on kicker Joey Slye to keep them in the game early. Despite a missed 48-yard attempt on the first series, Slye rallied with three successful field goals to close the first half. The kicking “temp” hit another speed bump in the third quarter after missing an extra point, which prevented the Niners from tying the game. Thankfully, the offense responded with touchdowns on consecutive drives and put the game out of Chicago’s reach. On Monday, Slye found himself back on the free agent market. He finished his stint with the 49ers 7-for-8 on field goal attempts and 3-for-4 on extra points. With Robbie Gould returning to the lineup, the 49ers need their highly paid kicker to stay healthy and be the steady fixture they expect.
One win in five weeks does not guarantee the 49ers are out of the woods. However, there’s room for optimism. The 49ers unearthed some of the elements that made them so dangerous in 2019. Whether or not Kyle Shanahan officially has his groove back is debatable. Injuries have, and continue to be, an issuefor the Red and Gold, but reinforcements are on the way. George Kittle, Dre Greenlaw, and Jeff Wilson Jr. are nearing their returns. If the 49ers make a conscious effort to regain their identity in all three phases, they could become the playoff team we all anticipated.
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