It will be the inaugural NFL regular-season game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. The game will mark the third time the Bears have played in an inaugural regular-season game at an opponent’s new stadium. The Bears last opened Lucas Oil Stadium in 2008 (a 29-13 Chicago victory). Chicago also opened Raymond James Stadium in 1998 (a 27-15 Buccaneers win).
Tonight will be the 60th regular-season meeting between the Bears and the 49ers, with the series tied 29-29-1. San Francisco holds a 23-12 edge in games played on the West Coast.
The last meeting between the two franchises came in 2012, a 32-7 49ers victory on Monday Night Football.
Asked this week what he remembers from that 32-7 drubbing, Bears LB Lance Briggs said: “I remember, ‘Touchdown, San Francisco. Touchdown.’ They beat us in every way.”
The Bears are banged up on the offensive side of the ball. The club’s two Pro Bowl wide receivers, Brandon Marshall (ankle) and Alshon Jeffery (hamstring), are both questionable. If either plays, he’ll be far from 100 percent.
Coach Marc Trestman said the team will go down to the wire before announcing their availability.
“We’ve got up to 90 minutes before the game to make those decisions,” Trestman said this week. “We’re going to use every minute of it to make sure we make the right decision in the best interests of the team and certainly for the player.”
For the 49ers, starting cornerbacks Tramaine Brock (toe) and Chris Culliver (concussion, stinger) are both questionable. Brock appears unlikely to play and will be replaced by Perrish Cox. If Culliver can’t play, Chris Cook or Dontae Johnson will start in his place.
Also out for San Francisco’s defense are DE Aldon Smith and LB Navarro Bowman.
With so many injuries, the weight of the offense will fall mainly on the shoulders of QB Jay Cutler, who will be attempting to put last week’s two-interception performance behind him.
“I just [need to] be on my game,” Cutler said. “Just know the calls, know exactly what we’re trying to get out of them. Stay in rhythm, not wait for anything, and just keep everyone moving because ultimately those [backup receivers] are going to mess up from time to time. We’re going to line up wrong. So it’s just staying calm and keep an eye on the play clock.
“With the full 11 [starters], you can just kind of get in and out of the huddle as fast as you can and those guys will figure it out. Even if we’re lined up on the wrong side and Z goes one way and X goes to the wrong side they know the call, they know the concept, they’ll get it figured out. These new guys I have to make sure that when we break the huddle we know exactly where we’re going, we’re getting our splits, we’re getting lined up correctly.”
If Cutler has another sub-par performance and turns the ball over at crucial moments, the offense will have little chance of out-scoring the 49ers. It’s a scenario that’s definitely on everyone’s mind, except for Chicago’s coaching staff.
“There’s going to be times in the game, like last week, where he has to direct a guy. ‘You have this route’ or ‘heads-up for this.’ Because there were some backups in the game and it could come again this week,” coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “Jay has become that guy for us. He’s the guy leading the offense. And he’s done a good job of communicating and whether it’s with the linemen, receivers, running backs, he’s done a good job communicating with all of them and becoming that force of whoever’s in with him, let’s go play. We’re 11-on-11 and we’ve been pleased with the way he’s done that.”
It’s safe to say Cutler will need to have one of his best games of the season, otherwise the Bears could easily fall to 0-2. Under the current playoff format, 12 percent of teams that begin the season 0-2 end up making the playoffs.
“Jay can be a stabilizing force because he’s the most experienced, because he’s seen more than other guys. Yeah, he can be the calming force in that way,” said Kromer. “He can be the director of the offense and he was the director of the offense in the last game. He was out there and there were plays changed at the line. There was communication in the huddle being made. He’s been doing that. And we ask him to continue that.”
Cutler has faced the 49ers twice in his career, completing 50 of 84 pass attempts for 537 yards, 1 TD and 6 INTs, good for a 52.5 QB rating. That won’t cut it.
BEARS ON OFFENSE
Matchups to Watch
WR Santonio Holmes vs. CB Perrish Cox
Holmes is the only healthy receiver on Chicago’s roster with any NFL game-day experience. Even if Marshall or Jeffery play, they won’t be 100 percent and may end up as decoys. That would put the passing-game onus on Holmes, who struggled last week with his understanding of the playbook. The veteran needs to break out and give Cutler a reliable target out wide.
DL Justin Smith vs. LT Jermon Bushrod
Smith is the 49ers’ best pass rusher and will line up all over the field, yet he’ll primarily come off the left edge. He sacked Tony Romo twice last week. The Bears must know where Smith is at all times, using chips and double-teams to keep him out of the backfield. Bushrod was solid last week against Bills DE Jerry Hughes and will need a repeat performance to keep Cutler off his back.
Keys to the Game
-The Bears are going to have to ride RB Matt Forte in this game. He had 169 yards from scrimmage against Buffalo in Week 1 and will need to be even better against San Francisco’s powerhouse defense. Luckily for the Bears, the 49ers are nearly as banged up on defense as they are on offense, which could even out the injuries.
Along with Cutler, Forte will need to pick up the slack with two starting offensive linemen, and potentially two Pro Bowl receivers, on the shelf. Expect him to see 20-30 touches in this game. If he can make the most of them and find pay dirt a few times, it will help the Bears win the time-of-possession battle, which would go a long way toward an upset victory.
-In the passing game, TE Martellus Bennett is going to be Cutler’s primary target. Bennett had eight catches for 70 yards and a touchdown in the regular-season opener. He’ll need another strong outing against San Francisco’s quality linebacker corps, led by perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, if Chicago is going to have any success moving the ball through the air.
BEARS ON DEFENSE
Matchups to Watch
Briggs struggled in the opener and was a culprit in each of the Bills’ game-changing runs. He consistently misread the read-option, allowing Buffalo to rack up 193 yards on the ground. The 49ers will also run plenty of zone-read and if Briggs has another poor outing, the results aren’t likely to change.
Gore and Hyde present one of the toughest one-two backfields in the game and they could combine for 30 or more touches, especially if San Francisco takes an early lead. If Chicago’s front seven can somehow contain these two and keep them under 100 total yards, the Bears may walk away with a win.
Staley is one of the most consistent pass blockers in the NFL and presents a huge test for Allen, who was nearly invisible last week. Allen needs to collapse the pocket, while also maintaining contain on the edge. If 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick gets to the outside and is able to extend plays with his legs, the Bears will have little chance of stopping San Francisco’s offense.
Keys to the Game
-The play of Chicago defensive tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea will be crucial in this contest. Both will see plenty of double teams off the ball and it will be important for them to hold their ground and clog space up the middle. If they can occupy blockers it will allow the Bears linebackers to fill gaps and keep San Francisco’s running game at bay.
-During the Week 1 opener, LB Jon Bostic appeared little improved over last season. He struggled again in play recognition, filing incorrect gaps and leaving holes in the middle of the field. He’s talented, fast and he can lay the lumber, so it’s been very surprising to see him so hesitant on the field. Tonight would be a great time for him to flip the switch.
-TE Vernon Davis is arguably the most athletic tight end in the league. The 49ers move him all over the offense, creating juicy mismatches. Expect the Bears to bracket Davis with linebackers underneath and safeties over the top. If that doesn’t work and Davis consistently finds room in the secondary, it’ll be curtains for the Bears.
-Rookie OLB Aaron Lynch picked up a sack in his pro debut last week and looked very good as an edge rusher. He’ll see increased reps this week, so the Bears must be aware of him on the field in passing situations.
49ers 28, Bears 20
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.