Jeremy Stoltz, publisher, BearReport.com: The 49ers will obviously lean on Frank Gore this week, yet the Bears are fourth in the NFL against the run. Only a few defenses have kept Gore in check this year. What is the key to limiting Gore on the ground?
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: Get an early lead and force the 49ers to stray away from their standard offensive game plan, which is to feed the football to Gore and his backup, Kendall Hunter, and grind out both yards on the ground and time off the clock with a power rushing attack. Gore is the guy who makes San Francisco's offense go, and the team's attack has revolved around him dating back to the middle of the past decade. Gore, San Francisco's all-time leading rusher with 8,378 career yards, still appears to be at the top of his game midway through his eighth season, which has seen him carry the football fewer times than in previous years up to this point as the team looks to keep its meal-ticket bell cow healthy and fresh. Gore ranks eighth in the NFL with 753 yards rushing, and he has done it on only 140 carries, averaging a healthy 5.4 yards a pop. He has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in seven of San Francisco's nine games – and 7.0 yards or better in three games – so nobody this season really has slowed down Gore much when he is able to get his carries and get in rhythm. But that's the key – forcing the 49ers to go away from the ground game and limiting Gore's opportunities. Gore had a season-low eight carries in San Francisco's worst loss this year – 26-3 to the Giants on Oct. 14. His next-fewest caries in a game? That was 12 totes in San Francisco's other loss this season – 24-13 at Minnesota on Sept. 23. If you limit the opportunities for Gore – still San Francisco's best offensive player – then you limit both him and the 49ers. The Niners have never lost a game during the Jim Harbaugh era – they're 18-0-1 – when Gore and Hunter combine for 20 or more carries in a game.
JS: If San Francisco struggles to move the ball on the ground, it will be up to Alex Smith, who is on track to play this week, to carry the load on offense. Can Smith be efficient against a Bears defense that leads the league in interceptions and total turnovers?
CM: He's going to have to be, because ball protection is going to be first and foremost for the 49ers if they expect to prevail against the Bears. The Niners are well aware that Chicago has taken over as this year's ball-hawking defense in the NFL, a label San Francisco earned last year when it led the NFL with 38 takeaways and a plus-28 turnover differential. The Niners had only 10 turnovers last year, and Smith once again is doing a fine job of protecting the football in 2012. He has been responsible for six of San Francisco's nine turnovers through nine games after committing just seven last year, including only five interceptions, the fewest ever for a regular San Francisco starting quarterback. Smith has thrown five picks already this season, but three of them came in one game, and he again has been both efficient in running the offense and not turning over the football, as suggested by his 104.1 passer rating, which ranks third in the NFL. Smith isn't one to force passes, and he would rather take a sack or throw away the football than force a pass into tight coverage. The 49ers will challenge the Bears with their short and intermediate passing game and Smith will look for one-on-one opportunities with his favorite targets, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. Realizing the Bears already have 30 takeaways this season, the 49ers have emphasized protecting the football this week, and Smith knows better than anybody that will be a major detail of his job description and expectation against the Bears.
JS: Michael Crabtree is quietly putting together the best season of his career. Has he finally turned the corner as a No. 1 NFL wideout? And what do you expect of Vernon Davis in this contest?
Craig Massei: I would say Crabtree finally has progressed into the category of legitimate No. 1 NFL wideouts after making solid strides in that direction last year, when he led the 49ers with 72 receptions and 874 receiving yards. Crabtree doesn't have great speed, but he is big and strong, catches the ball well, is dangerous after the catch and has added a lot of polish to his game in his fourth NFL season. He has been Smith's go-to guy this year, particularly on third downs, and has displayed an ability to run precise routes and beat one-on-one coverage. And he's been playing some of his best football in recent weeks with three scoring receptions in San Francisco's past two games. Crabtree also has been consistent with five or more receptions in six of the team's nine games. Opponents are smothering Davis with double-coverage and safeties over the top, but it is beyond me why the 49ers aren't getting him involved more in the offense in general and passing game in particular. Davis is a special talent who is a coverage nightmare for opponents – too fast for most linebackers and too big for most safeties. The attention Davis receives from opponents gives opportunities to others within the offense, but it would seem the 49ers would be looking to get the football to Davis more often and in more ways by now. He had a three-game stretch with just five total receptions before catching four passes last week. This may be the game the 49ers start looking his way more often since they are playing such a fine defense, and Davis has shown an ability to beat the best and rise to the occasion in big games.
JS: The 49ers boast one of the best front sevens in the league, led by All-Pro linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, as well as all-world pass rusher Aldon Smith, who has 9.5 sacks already this year. Is there a weakness the Bears can exploit in the run game to get Matt Forte going on the ground?
CM: This is a pretty complete defense, particularly against the run, though the Niners statistically have not been as unyielding as last season, when they led the NFL in rushing defense. They rank No. 7 in the league in that category this season, and four teams have rushed for 136 yards or more against them. Last year, the 49ers never allowed more than 124 rushing yards in one game and allowed more than 100 just three times. This year, teams with good backs – like Minnesota with Adrian Peterson, Seattle with Marshawn Lynch and St. Louis with Steven Jackson – have had success running the ball, and Forte certainly falls into that category. It's difficult to find a weakness on paper – the names you mentioned again are having fine seasons – but if you come right at the 49ers between the tackles, there seems to be more space there than last season. You can also test Aldon Smith on the right edge – he played strictly on passing downs last year as a rookie – though Smith has been holding up well as an every-down outside linebacker this year and leads the team with 13.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
JS: The news came out Friday that Jason Campbell will start in place of the injured Jay Cutler on Monday night. Campbell will surely lean on Brandon Marshall, who has been dominant this year. What will be the 49ers approach in trying to shut down Marshall?
CM:The most improved aspect of San Francisco's defense this season has been its performance against the pass. The 49ers have spent time this year as the NFL's top-ranked passing defense, and a lot of it has to do with the play on the back end of cornerbacks Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown and safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, who now are in their second season together as a starting unit. Rogers and Brown both are good coverage corners – Rogers was a Pro Bowl starter last year – so each will have one-on-one opportunities to cover Marshall. They will get help over the top in some coverage packages from Goldson, who also was a Pro Bowler last year. Expect nickel corner Chris Culliver to also get up in Marshall's face several times in man coverage. The 49ers like to play Culliver on the edge and Rogers in the slot when opponents go to three- and four-receiver sets, and Culliver is tough bumping receivers off the line and disrupting their routes and timing. One thing is certain Monday with Cutler out: Marshall will see a lot of different looks in coverage from the San Francisco defense.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider. Craig Massei is publisher of NinersDigest.com.