49ers vs. Bears: What we learned

Five things we learned about the 49ers during their 10-6 victory over the Chicago Bears: Ballhawks in secondary can fly after all; better off with Brown in place of Clements; power turned off in running game; help wanted at punt returner; and the Niners aren't dead yet – far from it.

We were beginning to wonder after San Francisco managed to go an entire half of the season with just four interceptions from defensive backs, who just weren't making enough plays on the football during the 49ers' first eight games. But that changed against a legitimate passing offense as San Francisco's secondary came through when it counted with four of the team's five interceptions against the NFL's 11th-ranked passing attack. Safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Roman and cornerback Tarell Brown each made heads-up plays to make their interceptions, with Roman holding his position in the middle of the field for his takeaway as quarterback Jay Cutler threw exactly to the spot where the receiver was supposed to be, but Roman refused to budge. Safety Michael Lewis provided a perfect exclamation point to the victory with his end-zone interception on the final play of the game. Again, Cutler threw right to the spot where his receiver was supposed to be, but a disciplined Lewis read the play and was there instead of tight end Greg Olsen, who didn't come back to the football. The San Francisco secondary always has had the capability for multiple-pick outings; on Thursday, it came through with that kind of performance on a night when the 49ers needed each of those four interceptions from the secondary to come away with a victory.

We hate to say that, because Clements cost the 49ers so much money in free agency a few years ago and, all things considered, has been a quality player as the team's No. 1 cornerback. But Clements has clearly lost a step this season and had been exposed several times in man coverage before he finally lost his starting job to Brown before the Indianapolis game, during which Clements suffered a fractured shoulder returning a punt that will keep him out until at least the final weeks of the season. When and if he does come back, Clements won't have a starting job waiting for him because that belongs to Brown now. Brown simply matches up better in coverage with quick receivers, and that's what San Francisco needs at the pivotal left corner position, even though Clements is a better hitter and tackler than Brown and has much more experience. But Brown can be feisty in run support, and he displayed during his interception against the Bears that he can be a playmaker and take advantage of opportunities that are presented to him. Brown didn't bite on a double-go move by receiver Devin Hester, and that left him in perfect position to make a pick when Hester fell down on what was supposed to be a deep-out pattern. Brown then broke across the field for a 51-yard return to set up the game's only touchdown, which proved to be all the points the 49ers needed for a victory. The 49ers recently signed Brown to a contract extension for a reason, and he now gives them more on the left corner than the overpriced Clements did before he was hurt.

The 49ers have occasionally showed glimpses this season that they can, indeed, be the power rushing team they intended to be this year. But more often than not, they have been far from it. A fourth-down sequence early in the second half Thursday pretty much epitomizes that the 49ers' power up front is more mirage than substance. With a chance to set the tone for the rest of the game and take command, the 49ers needed about 10 inches to move the chains on fourth down at the Chicago 46-yard line, and coach Mike Singletary put faith in his offensive line that the 49ers could get it. They couldn't. The 49ers had the right idea, going over aggressive right guard Chilo Rachal with a quarterback sneak, but the line got no push off the ball and Alex Smith – who stands 6-foot-4 – was stoned for no gain as he attempted to surge forward after taking the snap. It was as weak as weak can get as all the 49ers needed was for Smith to fall forward to pick up the first down, but the line couldn't even give him enough room to do that. The Bears, getting the ball near midfield, then promptly drove for their final field goal to creep within one point and set up a dramatic finish. If the 49ers can't get 10 inches in that kind of situation, how can they ever expect anybody to respect the "power" in their rushing game?

We love the idea of getting Brandon Jones on the field, particularly since the team spent so much money on him in the offseason and he has been no better than San Francisco's fourth or fifth receiver to this point. But the 49ers are clearly forcing the issue asking Jones to return punts. He let two punts hit the ground in front of him Thursday and both took Chicago rolls and hurt the 49ers in the battle for field position in a close game. Jones finally had a positive return against the Bears – his only return gained four yards – but he is clearly not giving the 49ers the sure hands and experienced decision-making they need back there. Jones had three returns for minus-3 yards the week before against Tennessee – his former team – and is averaging just 1.2 yards on his six returns this season. The 49ers have fallen to 28th in the NFL in punt-return average and clearly need some spark back there. While Jones has the speed and ability to make plays, he does not look like an effective punt returner. The 49ers need to go back to the proven experience of Arnaz Battle or try someone such as Josh Morgan and Jason Hill in the role, both of whom returned kicks in college.

Far from it, actually. The season was clearly slipping away as San Francisco took the field Thursday night, but the 49ers showed a lot of resiliency by ending a four-game losing streak against an equally desperate opponent despite not really playing very well. That San Francisco could pull out such a victory while being outgained 350-216 shows that the 49ers have what it takes to win, and are resourceful enough to pull out a vital victory on a night when they clearly aren't hitting on all cylinders. With nine days to rest, get healthy and prepare for their next game, the 49ers can vault back into the thick of playoff contention when they face the Packers at Green Bay on Nov. 22. The rest of the schedule sets up favorably for San Francisco after that, and there is a sense the 49ers have it in them to put a nice run together if they can consistently play up to their potential on both sides of the ball. There still is plenty of football left, and at 4-5 with nine games remaining, the 49ers still have plenty of time to write a storybook ending to this up-and-down season.

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