After a monumental win at Soldier Field in Green Bay, the Bears will pack their bags and prepare for two road games to close out the season. While the division is already clinched, the Bears would find it in their favor to secure the three seed in the NFC or maybe even steal a first round bye, though the latter would require ample help.
The first stop on Chicago’s two-game road trip is in San Fransisco, where they face a 49ers team devastated by the early-season loss of Jimmy Garoppolo. They will prepare to face a defense that has performed well in the past couple weeks but possesses some glaring flaws that the Bears will be able to take advantage of.
This is my scouting report on the 49ers’ defense.
Up front, everything starts and ends with DeForest Buckner, who plays the three-technique position most of the time. He’ll slide outside every now and then just to give the O-Line a different look, but is a perfect fit for the three-tech in this defense.
Buckner will work a nasty swim move in order to get to the quarterback, which works very well with his 6’7″ frame. And when he tries to beat guards with speed, he’ll have an abundance of counter-moves in his back pocket. Because their edge guys aren’t threats (more on that later), the Bears should treat him in pass-protection schemes like they treated Aaron Donald.
Next to Buckner at the nose spot is DJ Jones, a two-down player who isn’t a threat to get to the quarterback. He’ll hold his own against the run, as will Buckner, but neither are adept at getting a big push up the middle (which isn’t that is necessary in this defense; Jones does more than enough to have a valuable role).
Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas are the starters at defensive end, and their disappointing seasons are why this defense isn’t getting more attention. Thomas is a freak athlete who certainly looks the part of an elite edge rusher, but he’s living proof that athleticism isn’t enough.
He can’t defeat blockers with second efforts in his pass rush at all. What I found most notable about him on tape is his tendency to get caught peaking inside and not holding the edge against tosses or reverses, so that could be something to keep an eye on. Armstead is unspectacular as well and he’s been losing snaps to Ronald Blair, who’s the best pass rusher on the team not named Buckner and he’s pushing for a starting role.
Cassius Marsh will come in on third down and kick Thomas inside, while they’ll bring in Blair to rush on the opposite side. He can stand up or go in a 3-point stance, and they use him to create some funky looks in sub packages.
With the rookie linebacker class garnering so much attention, it’s surprising that conversations about it don’t really include Niners 3rd-rounder Fred Warner, because he’s quietly having an excellent season – so quietly that I had never heard of him until I put on the tape.
Warner is the leading tackler on this team by about 40. He’s super aggressive in attacking the run game, which opens up the play action game but when combined with Jones refusing to be pushed back makes this team difficult to run on. Elijah Lee starts beside him, and he shares some of these aggressive instincts to a lesser degree.
In the secondary, they’ve been dealing with some injury problems. Akhelo Whitherspoon is out for the season, and Jaquiski Tartt hasn’t practiced much this week so he probably won’t play either. This means that if anyone else gets hurt, Greg Mabin will have to play. You may remember him from opening a door and activating a blowtorch that was set by Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay’s comeback win earlier this season, subsequently lighting himself on fire.
The cornerbacks that they do have, though, are not bad. Richard Sherman is obviously the biggest name and he’s the best corner on the team. He’s not the playmaker or freak athlete that he used to be, but he’s still very physical and possesses solid technique. Teams don’t throw at him very much, due to his press-man tendencies.
Tarvarius Moore plays on the other side, and he had himself an excellent game last week against Seattle. He’s unproven as a rookie who hasn’t played much this year, but the Niners are very high on him. In the slot, K’Waun Williams is likely coming back from a two-game injury and he’s another solid cover corner.
Rookie DB DJ Reed was Williams’s replacement. He is much less reliable in coverage but he’s a weapon off the edge on blitzes, as the Broncos learned the hard way. He has safety experience as well, and he may start in Tartt’s absence is they want to keep his playmaking ability in the lineup. If he doesn’t start at FS, Antone Exum will. He has one of two 49ers interceptions on the season but he lacks a bit of the range required to play free safety in this defense.
Finally, Marcell Harris will get the start at strong safety and be an every-down player, acting as a third linebacker in the base set.
DC: Robert Saleh
The moment I started watching film from San Fransisco’s defense, I couldn’t help but remember a different scheme that looked very similar to this one.
Sure enough, Niners DC Robert Saleh does have a background working with the Seattle Seahawks, and they are the team that this defense mirrors. There are a few major differences, like their tendency to go in almost exclusively a nickel set, but the set-up in the secondary is eerily similar, among other things, is eerily similar.
They run a bit of a “triangle secondary,” which is not a term anyone uses; it’s just something I made up to describe what it look like. They will have a single-high safety at almost all times, with majority tight man defense on the line of scrimmage. They then walk the strong safety to the box where he lines up like he’s a linebacker. His main purpose is checking the tight end as a DB who can run with them and being an extra body against the run. If the offense spreads out, he’ll act like a slot corner.
Their corners will not move around; Sherman and Moore will stick to their respective sides and Williams will stay in the slot. It’s possible that we see a cover two or a cover three look, but they will be in cover-one most of the time, especially on first and second down.
They won’t really disguise their coverages. What you see pre-snap is generally what you get.
In the trenches, they will run a very typical four-man front with a three-tech, a one-tech, and two fives (aka one guy shading the center, one on an outside shade to the guard, and two ends occupying the outside shoulders of the tackles). The only variation is an under front, with the back side end shifting to the B gap and the strong safety creeping down behind him as an outside linebacker would.
Their scheme is very vanilla on the first two downs, but third down is when they like to get crazy. They’ll typically bring in Marsh as an edge rusher for Jones, sub Blair in for Armstead, and kick Thomas down to a three-technique spot.
They’ll blitz often here, with the most common formation to do so being a sugar set, with both linebackers walking down into the A gaps. They can also run DB blitzes and with those come open receivers in the flat, because they’re scared of taking a man out of the secondary and giving up the big play.
The key tendency that Mitch Trubisky has to be aware of is that they’re not afraid to send the house – that is, the strong safety and both off-ball linebackers – on crucial plays. They will go all-out and the Bears’ signal caller must be ready for it.
Matchup the 49ers can exploit: DeForest Bucker vs. Bryan Wintzmann
Buckner has the ability to take over games and the Bears simply cannot let that happen. When he lines up on the offense’s left, Chicago needs to give Wintzmann (who has been improving as of late) all the help he can get.
Matchup the Bears can exploit: Tarik Cohen vs. Man Defense
When a team plays a majority man defense, that likely means putting a linebacker on a running back. And I have not seen one linebacker who can guard Tarik Cohen one-on-one yet.
When the Bears see that triangle look, they have to be looking Cohen’s way the whole time.
This is a defense that is better than you think, but they’re middle of the pack at best and most importantly, they do not take the ball away. And if you’re a team with an offense who can’t score at will (or even if you have one that can, as LA found out), you have to create turnovers in order to score points.
And I don’t think the Niners are capable of doing that enough to win this game.
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Picture: USA Today