Bears vs. 49ers: What to Watch for on Sunday

Lovie Smith and his undefeated Bears will take on rebuilding San Francisco at Soldier Field on Sunday. Both teams have had an extra week to prepare and lick their wounds after enjoying a bye week. Here are 10 things to watch for as the Monsters of the Midway continue their push for home-field advantage in the NFC.

1. When will the running game finally develop some consistency?
For whatever reason, the Bears have enjoyed a very strong running game at Soldier Field but have had a difficult time on the ground away from the Windy City. Tailback Thomas Jones is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns at home, but he is only getting 3.1 yards per attempt on the road and is yet to find the end zone. Cedric Benson does not have the same disparity, putting up 3.1 at home and 3.2 on the road, although he has had almost three times as many rushes along Lake Michigan (35) as he has elsewhere (12). The offensive line has been taking a lot of heat for not opening up enough holes, but you have to start wondering if perhaps all of Jones's dancing at the line of scrimmage is affecting his output. If Benson could ever stop putting his foot in his mouth, maybe he might get a chance to start one of these days.

2. Will the return of Adewale Ogunleye make the D-line even better?
Ogunleye probably could have suited up two weeks ago in Arizona, but with a tricky hamstring injury and a supposedly inferior opponent - not to mention fantastic depth behind him - the trainers decided to hold him out for one more game. The bye week gave him even longer to get treatment and make sure he's back to full strength this Sunday. He'll be needed because 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is very mobile and presents some problems when he escapes the pocket. Israel Idonije and rookie Mark Anderson certainly filled in capably in Ogunleye's absence, but he is an elite player when on top of his game. He was having a great season before tweaking that hammy.

3. Will the real Rex Grossman please stand up?
Is Grossman the QB with the 100+ passer rating and in the conversation for NFL MVP, or is he the glazed-eyes turnover artist we saw in Arizona? Bears fans are simply hoping that last game was an anomaly. That being said, after a stellar start to the season, Grossman has thrown seven interceptions in six games and put the ball on the ground on more than a few occasions. A consistent rushing attack could be just what the doctor ordered because he's had an awful lot of pressure on him to carry the offense, especially on the road. The 49ers do rank 30th in the NFL defending the pass, so they might be what Grossman needs to get back on track.

4. Can Todd Johnson carry the torch with Mike Brown in street clothes?
It would be unfair to ask Johnson to take over the leadership role in the secondary. He is very good against the run and has been known to come up with some big hits, but replacing a Pro-Bowler like Brown is a tough task. Furthermore, rookie free safety Danieal Manning could be affected without his veteran safety mate playing alongside him. Johnson just needs to worry about making plays on defense. As far as becoming more vocal in the huddle, leave that to the likes of Brian Urlacher and Alex Brown.

5. Where has Muhsin Muhammad gone?
Moose was off to a great start this season, catching 24 balls in the first four games. But for whatever reason, the former All-Pro only has three receptions his last two games combined. It's nice to see the likes of Bernard Berrian and Desmond Clark step up and be integral parts of the passing game, but Muhammad was given a $30 million contract for a reason. He came to Chicago to be a primary weapon at receiver, and he is expected to perform like one. Grossman simply believes that these things go in cycles, but look to see if Muhammad gets a few passes thrown his way early on Sunday.

6. Will Idonije be squeezed out of the rotation at defensive end?
Head coach Lovie Smith has always been the kind of guy who feels a player can't lose his job due to injury, so Ogunleye will step right back in at left end. But when you factor in how explosive Anderson has been in reserve duty, it's going to be doubly-tough now to keep him on the sidelines. Idonije is a valuable defender who can play both end and tackle, but Anderson is among the league leaders with 6.5 sacks despite only one start. The D-line is incredibly deep, a luxury many teams in the NFL don't have. But don't be shocked to see the rookie Anderson getting many more snaps than the veteran Idonije going forward.

7. Is Jason McKie already a forgotten man in the passing game?
Remember not too long ago when McKie was being applauded for his soft hands out of backfield? And remember when Grossman was being commended for checking it down to his fullback when he was open? Further still, remember when offensive coordinator Ron Turner was shaking hands and kissing babies for getting the fullback involved in the aerial attack? That seems like a long time ago because McKie has a grand total of one catch for one yard the last two games. Grossman had his best success earlier in the season when he was taking what the defense was giving him and not forcing the ball downfield, so hitting his fullback every now and then would be a good way to get back to that.

8. Why doesn't Brad Maynard get more credit?
Maynard actually got some consideration as the team MVP back in that 13-3 season of 2001. Whether that says more about the punter or more about the lack of actual talent on that team is debateable. Nevertheless, Maynard is enjoying another stellar season with his right foot. Not only is he averaging 46 yards per attempt, buy he's dropped nine punts inside the 20-yardline and only had one bounce into the end zone for a touchback. Opposing offenses are not going to consistently drive 80+ yards on the Bears D, so Maynard's ability to control field position has been understated.

9. Did the 49ers show too much back in the preseason?
Smith looked very comfortable on bootlegs and sprint-outs against the Bears back in August. He had almost no pressure on him at all, and it showed in an impressive 16-of-21 performance through the air. The Bears approached that first exhibition game with no gameplan whatsoever, but the 49ers went out of their way to open the playbook a little and give their struggling franchise some reason to feel good about the upcoming season. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera & Company have plenty of film on Smith and know what they need to do to slow him down, that is a promise. Whether Smith can do it when the Monsters of the Midway are at full capacity, that remains to be seen.

10. How much will the Bears benefit from the bye week?
Few teams on a six-game winning streak want to take a week off, but the bye came just in time for the Bears. Players like Ogunleye and Clark should be back at full speed, plus Grossman obviously needed some extra work in the film room. Having seven more days to address the loss of Brown at safety also gave the team a chance to look at guys like Brandon McGowan as a potential replacement. Johnson also got some valuable practice time with the first unit alongside Manning. They should be rested, relaxed, and ready for Sunday's game.

JC


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