Behind Enemy Lines: Bears-49ers Part II

Niners Digest publisher Chris Biderman answers five critical questions about the San Francisco 49ers heading into Sunday night's contest against the Chicago Bears.

The Bears had the worst run defense in the league last year and gave up nearly 200 rushing yards to the Bills last week. With the 49ers power run game, do you expect anything less than 35-40 touches for Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde combined?

That would make the most sense. But at the same time, that’s what many expected going into Week 1’s game against the Cowboys. San Francisco came out throwing the ball down field knowing Dallas’ defense would sell out against the run, particularly after they jumped ahead with the early defensive touchdown.

The 49ers’ focus this offseason was on the passing game, getting receivers Stevie Johnson in trade from Buffalo and former Bear Brandon Lloyd off the street. Coordinator Greg Roman dialed up 52 percent of the plays with three wide receivers in the opener after using that personnel just 22 percent of the time in 2013. Early on it looks like there could be a shift in identity towards the passing game knowing the defense might not be as strong in the early going without Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.

That being said, the 49ers should still be able to run the ball effectively Sunday night, particularly if right guard Alex Boone is back in the starting lineup. Boone held out the entire offseason program and returned just a week before the Cowboys game. Joe Looney got the start, but it’s clear the line will be better served with Boone back in there, particularly in running plays when he pulls to the left side.

After watching the tape, it looked like the Bears struggled against misdirection runs in their loss to the Bills, which could be an area the 49ers look to exploit. Gore is much more of a traditional runner, while Hyde excels in the read-option game. I don’t know if the 49ers will run the ball 35 times, especially if the Bears are able to move the ball on offense. But the running game will certainly be a key for San Francisco.

Vernon Davis is one of the toughest mismatches in the game and is coming off a two-touchdown performance. With a tight end as athletically talented as Davis, have you witnessed successful game plans by previous defenses that the Bears can use to limit his effectiveness as a pass catcher?

The best chance at stopping Davis is by either bracketing him consistently with double coverage or having safeties that can match him in man-to-man. So far, the Seahawks are the only team that’s been able to consistently slow Davis with their safety combo of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Chancellor has been able to match Davis’ rare combination of size and speed, while Thomas has been excellent at keeping him from getting open deep down field. Seattle has also used Richard Sherman on him at times.

But with Anquan Boldin off to a nice start (eight catches, 99 yards in Week 1) and Michael Crabtree back after his Achilles tear last season, the 49ers are hoping to make defenses pay underneath for focusing on Davis over the top. The Bears' best chance at slowing down Davis is with the pass rush and not giving Colin Kaepernick time in the pocket to let Davis get down the field. Otherwise, San Francisco hasn’t found a defense outside of Seattle that can slow down the intermediate passing game AND Davis over the top.

The 49ers sacked Tony Romo three times last week, twice by Justin Smith, yet the Bears boast one of the top pass-blocking offensive lines in the league. What will be San Francisco’s strategy to collapse the pocket and harass Jay Cutler?

The pass rush was certainly an area of concern for coordinator Vic Fangio after the win over the Cowboys. Not having Aldon Smith for eight more games is a significant blow. Second-year player Corey Lemonier, who is used exclusively in nickel situations, got stonewalled by Dallas’ front for the entire game while Ahmad Brooks struggled on the other side, despite registering the team’s third sack.

Brooks, a former second-team All Pro, didn’t come to camp in great shape and was taken out of the game for parts of the second half to bring in rookie outside linebacker Aaron Lynch. Lynch is an intriguing player. It’s not often rookies get to play on Fangio’s unit unless they really stand out. For Lynch, a fifth-round pick, getting significant snaps in Sunday’s game bodes very well for him going forward. He was viewed as a first-round prospect as a freshman at Notre Dame before numerous off-the-field issues plagued him during a transfer to South Florida and fought with serious weight loss. That and “character concerns” caused a drop in his draft stock, but it looks like the 49ers are going to come out well with their fifth-round investment. Lynch is very long like Aldon Smith and has proven he can get to the passer in the preseason and in Week 1.

But overall, the 49ers simply have to be better rushing the passer individually. Fangio keeps his schemes relatively vanilla and allows his players to win one-on-one battles. But it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see more stunts and creative ways to get to Jay Cutler Sunday night to throw off that passing game. Brooks should be in better form as well.

San Francisco CB Tramaine Brock isn’t expected to play, while CB Chris Culliver is recovering from a concussion. If Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery suit up on Sunday – both are listed as questionable – how do the 49ers plan on stopping Chicago’s Pro Bowl receivers?

It looks like Culliver is going to play, assuming he passes his contact test Saturday following his concussion last week. If that’s the case, Culliver will play on the right side while Perrish Cox will play on the left in Brock’s place. Cox is the veteran on the group and only the corner capable of playing all three spots, including nickel. He played well in the playoffs last year against Green Bay and Carolina when Carlos Rogers was sidelined with a hamstring strain. And he intercepted Tony Romo Sunday.

For the 49ers to slow down that passing game, they will have to improve their pass rush and rely heavily on safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea. Reid, in his second season, is looking like franchise safety that will be in the running for All-Pro consideration season after season. The veteran Bethea wasn’t known for his cover skills during time with the Colts, but has done well in that area in the early going with his new team. I would expect the safeties to be helping the corners out in a big way Sunday night, which could open things up for Martellus Bennett down the middle of the field.

The wild card of the group is rookie Dontae Johnson. He stepped in when Culliver went down on the right side last week and performed well against Dez Bryant. Johnson has the size, 6’2”, and very long arms that have been en vogue at the position throughout the league. He’s picked things up quickly and won’t be at the same physical disadvantage as the other corners thanks to his height. Johnson isn’t likely to start, but should there be another injury, he could come in and contribute Sunday.

How much of a distraction has the Ray McDonald situation been for the team and do you feel it will affect his play, or the play of his teammates, on Sunday?

The 49ers have a veteran locker room and don’t appear to be too distracted by this mess. Most of the players are saying it’s only a distraction when the media comes in and asks them about it.

But the defensive front didn’t play particularly well last week. It’s impossible to know if McDonald’s arrest had anything to do with it, but doesn’t seem like it on the surface. I would guess missing Smith and Bowman is a bigger factor in the front’s play than the arrest.

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