SANTA CLARA, Calif. - In his first season with the 49ers, Blaine Gabbert spent 2014 as Colin Kaepernick's understudy, getting the majority of his practice reps on the scout team, helping prepare the defense for the upcoming opponent.
Sunday in Chicago, that upcoming opponent is now Bears coordinator Vic Fangio, who saw Gabbert's work on scout team daily as he ran San Francisco's defense.
That unit never finished worse than fifth in the NFL in total yardage during his four seasons working under former coach Jim Harbaugh.
"They make you execute 10, 11, 12 play drives and that’s tough because as a quarterback sometimes you get greedy, but you just have to be content taking what they give you, utilizing the stuff underneath and just being consistent for 10, 11, 12, 13 plays at a time,” Gabbert said of Fangio's defense in Chicago.
Even last season, when the 49ers were dealing with prolonged absences from Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the defense finished ranked fifth in the league, on the way to an 8-8 finish. Fangio's work has continued Chicago, where the Bears have won three of their last four.
"I just look back on the four years with the 49ers with really good memories," Fangio said. "We had a nice run there. Got to a Super Bowl. Got to three championship games. Won a lot of football games over a four-year period. I just look back there with a lot of fond memories."
When the 49ers were in the market for a new head coach last winter, they passed over Fangio in favor of Jim Tomsula, despite players, including Bowman, pining for Fangio's return to the team.
“I would like to see Vic Fangio here, whether that’s as head coach or DC," Bowman said the day after San Francisco announced its parting with Harbaugh.
Fangio said this week the revenge factor is not playing a role in his preparation for his former team.
"That’s their decision and their choice. I have nothing to do with that," Fangio said. "I’ve just always accepted it’s their decision, their team. They do what they want with it...We’re 5-6. All I’m thinking about is trying got get to 6-6."
One of Fangio's most impressive feats with San Francisco was going 4-0 against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, including two wins in the playoffs. Coincidentally, the Bears are coming off a 17-13 Thanksgiving night at Lambeau Field, where Rodgers threw for just 188 yards and two interceptions to veteran cornerback Tracy Porter.
Fangio's success with the 49ers had a lot do to with the talented front seven. Setting the tone was defensive lineman Justin Smith, who regularly commanded double teams, opening up space for linebackers and putting Aldon Smith in favorable positions to get after the passer.
Most importantly, for a coordinator, Fangio had a knack for calling the right defense at the right time, and having his players prepared for the offense based on what looks it was giving.
The Bears don't have near the level of talent those 49ers teams did, but they are improving with their new coordinator.
Last season, Chicago ranked 30th in yardage and 31st in scoring. This year, those numbers are down to 14th and 19th, respectively, while the overall talent level hasn't changed much.
In the three games since promoting Gabbert to the starting lineup, he's proven to be a more productive quarterback than Kaepernick. Gabbert's completing 65 percent of this throws (Kaepernick: 59 percent), averaging 256 yards per game (Kaepernick: 179) and is getting sacked on four percent of his drop backs (Kaepernick: 10 percent).
But the 49ers still rank at the bottom of the NFL in both scoring and yardage after consecutive 13-point performances against divisional foes the last two weeks.
Perhaps the biggest reason the 49ers haven't been able to increase their league-worst 13.8 points-per-game average, is their lack of productivity on third down.
The 49ers converted 2 of 20 third downs over the last two games, including zero for nine in last week's home loss to the Cardinals.
"Absolutely not OK. I mean, we need to get first downs on third down. So, we’ve got to do a better job there,” Tomsula said this week. "We need to throw beyond the sticks. We need to protect. We need the entire play. In that situation, we’ve got to do a better job there.”
While Gabbert has shown improvement from his rough days as a Jacksonville Jaguar, he hasn't been very aggressive on the penultimate down. He's avoided making aggressive and risky throws downfield, instead opting for safer options, like check-downs to running backs and tight ends.
When asked about being more aggressive on third down, receiver Torrey Smith did not want to criticize offensive coordinator Geep Chryst's play calling.
"I'm not one to make suggestions. I just got to my job and try to do that to the best of my abilities," Smith said. "Whatever they call, if we make it work, it's genius play. That's the way I feel about each and every play. If we take care of our business, it doesn't matter what the call is. If we get the first down, it's a great play."