Four Downs: Keys to beating the 49ers

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A look at four keys for the Bears to beat this week’s opponent.

1. Stack the box to contain Frank Gore
San Francisco’s Frank Gore is one of the toughest between-the-tackles running backs in the NFL. He has one of the highest yards-per-carry average (5.6) in the league, too, just behind Tennessee’s Chris Johnson and Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall. With a poor quarterback leading the way, the 49ers will choose to run their offense through Gore. After witnessing the worst running team in the NFL gash the Bears for 182 yards on the ground last week, Gore and the 49ers’ offensive line must be salivating at what they can do. Last week’s defensive ineptitude is, in part, what led tight end Vernon Davis to proclaim that the 49ers “can destroy” the Bears’ front seven. Because Alex Smith will be one of the worst quarterbacks the Bears have had to face all season, the defense should be able to concentrate on the run without fearing the pass too much.

2. Win time of possession
It’s clear the Bears’ defense is wearing down this season because of how much time they’re spending on the field. It also doesn’t help that they constantly find themselves on the wrong side of third-down conversions — a problem I discussed frequently leading up to their loss to the Cardinals. Arizona converted on its first eight third downs last week. The best way to prevent the Bears’ defense from giving up so many time-consuming drives that lead to points is to keep them off the field as much as possible. That’s why it’s incumbent on the Bears’ offense to not only have productive drives that end in points, but to also keep the ball in their possession for longer periods of time. It would help if their run game was more effective, but against the 49ers’ No. 4-ranked run defense, it’s probably best to use short and intermediate routes to serve as their run plays. The Bears don’t necessarily need to have great success on the ground, but they need to convert on third downs as much as opponents have converted third downs on the Bears’ defense.

3. Start the game strong
The Bears never led in either the Bengals game or the Cardinals game and were only tied twice against the Cardinals — during the opening kickoff, and then again at 7-7. They gave up 31 points in the first half of both of those games. In other words, the offense never had a chance to get anything going. How can we truly evaluate where the offense stands in terms of its development when they’re forced to alter their game plan immediately and play from behind for nearly the entire game? That’s why I feel it’s imperative that the Bears not only score in the first quarter — something they’ve had trouble doing all season — but also take a lead into halftime. The Bears have been a fairly good second-half team this year, so if they can jump ahead on the 49ers early, I think they can put them away later in the game.

4. Pressure Alex Smith
Smith, the 2005 first overall draft pick, has been a resounding bust. However, he has given the 49ers some life offensively since taking over for Shaun Hill in Week 7 against the Texans. He can make some big time plays — he wouldn’t have been drafted as high as he was if he couldn’t make the NFL throws. But his decision-making leaves something to be desired. Last week against the Titans, Smith threw three interceptions and fumbled twice, losing one of them. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that such a performance will carry over to this week. Arizona’s Kurt Warner threw five interceptions the week before shredding the Bears for five touchdowns. But the Bears have to step up their pressure on the quarterback and improve their blitz packages. They blitz often, but the Bears have had a hard time getting to the quarterback when doing so, leaving the secondary vulnerable against the pass. 49ers quarterbacks have been sacked 26 times this year, tied for fourth-most in the NFL.

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