Monday Night Football this week features a marquee matchup between two of the best teams in the NFL. The Chicago Bears (7-2) head on the road to take on the San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1). Both teams are in first place in their respective divisions.
Chicago is in second place overall in the NFC. This game will go a long way toward deciding who will get a bye in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
Tonight's contest will be the 59th meeting between the two franchises, with the Bears holding a slim 29-28-1 series lead. Chicago is 9-2 on Monday Night Football under Lovie Smith, including winning seven of their last eight. This will be the first of seven consecutive NFC contests for the Bears to close out the 2012 regular season.
-DE Shea McClellin is also out due to a concussion.
-The Bears will get a big piece back on offense with the return of WR Alshon Jeffery, who missed the past four games with a hand injury. He practiced fully all week and is listed as probable.
Bears on Offense
Chicago's offensive rankings
Points scored: 8th (26.9)
Total offense: 28th (316.8)
Rushing offense: 9th (127.0)
Passing offense: 30th (189.8)
San Francisco's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 1st (14.1)
Total defense: 3rd (292.1)
Rushing defense: 7th (95.3)
Passing defense: 5th (196.8)
Turnover ratio: 9th (+4)
Matchups to Watch
G Lance Louis & G Chilo Rachal vs. LB Patrick Willis & LB NaVorro Bowman
With Campbell under center, the Bears will be dependant upon the run game. If Matt Forte and Michael Bush struggle to move the ball on the ground, Chicago's offense is in big trouble. The 49ers use a base 3-4 defense, against which the Bears have struggled to run the ball this season. Facing four 3-4 defenses this season, the club has averaged just 104 yards per game on the ground. That cannot happen against San Francisco. Rachal and Louis must be able to get to the second level and occupy Willis and Bowman, two of the best inside linebackers in the league. If those two are allowed to roam free and make plays, Chicago's offense will have no shot.
-LT J'Marcus Webb vs. OLD Aldon Smith
Smith is a force off the edge and currently ranks fourth in the league in sacks (9.5). The second-year player has the ability to quickly turn the corner and the strength to outmuscle offensive linemen. Campbell is a pure pocket passer who, unlike Jay Cutler, struggles to extend plays with his legs. If Webb is not solid protecting the blind side, and Smith is allowed to wreak havoc in Chicago's backfield, the offense won't be able to move the ball through the air.
Keys on Offense
-Getting Alshon Jeffery back is huge for the offense. In his absence, no other pass catcher has stood out, leaving Brandon Marshall as the only playmaker. He has been outstanding but against San Francisco's fifth-ranked pass defense, Chicago will need another option. Jeffery will take some pressure off Marshall and give Campbell another big-bodied target.
-TE Kellen Davis has been horrible lately and is not producing like many thought he would this season. Last week, he lost a fumble to the Texans and dropped two big passes. That's why it's likely he'll be staying in to block for most of tonight's contest. That could open up opportunities for H-back Evan Rodriguez, who has not been used in the passing game up to this point. Rodriguez has very soft hands and can be a weapon on short and intermediate patterns out of the backfield.
-49ers CB Carlos Rogers will likely shadow Marshall throughout this game. Rogers is one of the biggest (6-0, 192) and most-physical corners Marshall will face all season. He must be up to the task, not allowing Rogers to chuck him at the line of scrimmage. This will be a great matchup to watch and one that could decide Chicago's fate on offense.
-Yet the biggest threat in the passing game is S Dashon Goldson, who lines up all over the field and is a big-time playmaker. Campbell must be aware of where Goldson is at all times.
-RT Gabe Carimi is still having issues in pass protection. Things won't get any easier this week, when he faces OLB Ahmad Brooks, who has 4.0 sacks this season. Carimi has to raise his level of play and keep Brooks out of the backfield.
Bears on Defense
Chicago's defensive rankings
Points allowed: 2nd (14.8)
Total defense: 5th (307.3)
Rushing defense: 4th (92.3)
Passing defense: 10th (215.0)
Turnover ratio: 2nd (+14)
San Francisco's offensive rankings
Points scored: 15th (23.7)
Total offense: 11th (365.9)
Rushing offense: 1st (170.2)
Passing offense: 28th (195.7)
Matchups to Watch
S Major Wright vs. TE Vernon Davis
Davis is a crucial cog in San Francisco's aerial attack. He is second on the team in receptions (29), targets (41) and receiving yards (404), and leads the team in touchdowns (4). He's a big-play threat – he leads the 49ers in receptions of 20+ yards – that can burn a defense down the middle of the field. Wright will likely be tasked with keep Davis under wraps. Kaepernick is going to look to his tight end early and often, as most young passers do, so it'll be up to Wright to limit one of San Francisco's biggest threats.
RB Frank Gore vs. LB Brian Urlacher
San Francisco's offense goes through Gore, one of the toughest downhill runners in the game. With Kaepernick under center, the 49ers are likely to lean on Gore even more. Chicago's linebackers, particularly the man in the middle, Brian Urlacher, have to play sound, gap-control defense. If they can fill holes and limit Gore, it will go a long way toward winning this contest.
Keys on Defense
-WR Michael Crabtree is finally playing like the No. 1 wideout everyone expected him to be when he was drafted as the 10th overall selection in the 2009 draft. With his head on straight, Crabtree has been tough to stop this year. CB Charles Tillman will most likely shadow Crabtree all night. If Tillman can shut down the 49ers' best receiver, or cause a fumble or two, San Francisco will have a hard time moving the ball through the air.
-With Kaepernick, the Bears have to be wary of his ability to run. The youngster will make some mistakes with his arm, so Chicago has to be sure to keep him in the pocket. If he gets loose, he'll pick up big chunks on the ground. Defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije, as well as Corey Wootton, have to keep contain on the edges.
-San Francisco's offensive line is one of the best run-blocking units in the game. Each player along the front five can maul, which will put a lot of pressure on Chicago's defensive line. Defensive tackles Henry Melton and Stephen Paea, as well as Nate Collins, must be stout inside. If they get pushed around and Gore has holes through which to run, the 49ers will gash Chicago's defense on the ground.
Follow me on Twitter: @BearReport
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.