Craig Massie, publisher, NinersDigest.com: The Bears no doubt brought in Jason Campbell at quarterback this year for situations just as this, but what's the confidence level in Chicago that he can step in for his first start in place of Jay Cutler on such a big stage in such an important game? How does the offense change with Campbell starting, and what are the things than he can and can't do within the structure the Bears have in place? What will Campbell have to do against an elite defense to give Chicago a legitimate shot at victory?
Jeremy Stoltz, publisher, BearReport.com: Campbell has started 70 games in his career, so there's no fear the offense will implode, a la Caleb Hanie last season. There is no doubt he can manage an NFL football game. He is prone to the check down pass, though, and isn't too accurate down the field. Against San Francisco's defense, which is one of the best tackling teams in the league, yards after the catch will be tough to come by. Campbell will need to break out of his shell and take some deep shots, otherwise the 49ers can press and put eight men in the box to stop Matt Forte. If that happens, Chicago's offense will be in for a long day.
CM: We gained respect for Lovie Smith during his time as defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams, but it doesn't quite seem like Smith gets his due on a national level for what he's done as a head coach since joining the Bears. Is Smith under-rated as a coach, and how instrumental has he been in building these strong defenses in Chicago and keeping the Bears competitive over the years? What is your take on Smith as a coach, and what is the perception of him now in Chicago? Is he under pressure to win this season to keep his job, or is his position with the team safe for years to come?
JS: Smith has the third-most wins in the history of the Bears franchise. In that respect, as far as what he's done as head coach since 2004, he is very underrated. He's the main reason the club's defense is strong annually, with his influence in personnel shifting toward that side of the ball, and he's a squeaky clean spokesperson for the team. Yet the Bears have made the playoffs just once since their Super Bowl run in 2006. So despite his overall body of work, Smith needs to win now. After the team's collapse last year, dropping out of the playoffs after starting 7-3, a similar failure this season would definitely lead to his ousting. But if he can lead this team deep into the playoffs, it's likely GM Phil Emery will extend him well beyond 2013.
CM: Thirty takeaways after nine games are ridiculous, video-game numbers for an NFL team. What has gotten into the Bears' defense this year to have them creating such a turnover frenzy? Who are the players leading the way, and are the Bears doing anything different than in the past to become such ball-hawks and takeaway-mongers? How much have all these takeaways been a factor this year in Chicago's success?
JS: Tim Jennings has been the catalyst for Chicago's defense all season. He currently leads the NFL with eight interceptions, which is four times his single-season career high. He started the campaign with two picks in the season opener and it's been contagious across the defense ever since. Yet it's not just the turnovers that have helped the defense, it's what they've done with those takeaways. The club has seven interception-return TDs this season, with is two shy of the NFL record for pick-sixes. It's the mindset of the entire defense to put points on the board, which has been necessary in a lot of games this year, considering how inconsistent the offense has played.
CM: They have the endorsement of the President of the United States, so the Bears must be pretty darn good on defense. But just how good are they? Chicago's defense appears to have made significant strides since last season, even though some of the same familiar faces are in place. What has been the difference for the Bears this year in taking their defense to a higher level? How are the big names such as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers performing? Who are the players stepping up that not everybody knows about yet?
JS: The biggest improvement in Chicago's defense has been the pass rush. Off the edge, Peppers, as well as a healthy Israel Idonije, are playing at a very high level despite being on the wrong side of 30. Rookie Shea McClellin has provided a speed boost while third-year defensive end Corey Wootton appears to have taken the next step, after being hindered by injuries to this point in his career. The depth outside allows the club to rotate players throughout each contest, keeping them fresh late in games. The improvement on the interior of the defensive line has also been a huge boost. Second-year lineman Stephen Paea has been stellar against the run and is one of the best pass-rushing nose tackles in the game. Yet DT Henry Melton has made the biggest strides. In his second season as the full time starter inside, Melton has been exceptional as both a pass rusher and against the run. His improvement in the middle has opened up things for Briggs and Urlacher, both of whom are still playing at a Pro Bowl level, to make plays all over the field.
CM: Let's say that Campbell gets by and does an adequate job in place of Cutler on Monday. With an offense ranked 28th in the NFL, what else then would have to take place for the Bears to pull off a road upset against a top opponent that plays very well at home? What do you see to be Chicago's formula for success on Monday, and what is it essential to the Bears to do to leave San Francisco with a victory?
JS: First off, the run game has to be strong. Last week, the Houston Texans completely derailed Chicago's rushing attack. Matt Forte had just 39 rushing yards on 16 carries, a big reason for the Sunday night loss, and he's topped the 100-yard mark just once in his past four games. Chicago's offensive line must step up and create holes up front, which will be key in taking pressure off Campbell and opening up space down the field. On defense, the Bears cannot let Frank Gore gash them for big yardage. Keeping Gore down and putting the ball into Smith's hands is Chicago's recipe for success. Monday night's game is likely to be a slugfest, where field position could play a big factor. For that reason, the Bears must be stout on special teams as well if they are going to pull of the primetime upset.
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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.