The Chicago Bears are NFC North Champions for the first time since 2010. On an even higher note, they did so after week 15 in defeating the Green Bay Packers. However, they still have something to play for as the top two seeds in the NFC have not been set yet. It is looking less likely that the New Orleans Saints slip up as they would need to lose both of their remaining games to lose the top spot. They face the Pittsburgh Steelers this week followed by a Cam Newton-less Carolina Panthers in week 17.
The Los Angeles Rams, on the other hand, have looked anything but dominant recently. They have a slightly easier schedule though as they play the Arizona Cardinals this week and close the season against the San Francisco 49ers. Those same 49ers are the team the NFC North champions (I can’t help but repeat that over and over) face this week. Let’s take a closer look at the Niners offense and some things the Bears can expect to see this Sunday.
As with looking at any offense, it starts with the quarterback. At the beginning of the season no one would have expected that the starter for the San Francisco 49ers would be a guy named Nick Mullens.
He was not even verified on Twitter before his surprising domination of the Oakland Raiders back on November 1. He went undrafted an began the season fourth on the depth chart.
However, after a plethora of injuries he has found himself in the driver’s seat. He has played solid as well which can make him a possible trade target this offseason as this is still Jimmy Garoppolo’s team.
Mullens is 3-3 as a starter including two impressive back-to-back wins against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Through six games he has thrown for 1,754 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions good for a rating of 96. This can be credited to both his talent on top of the offensive mind of Kyle Shanahan.
Nick Mullens isn’t just a guy the Niners are throwing out there to finish the season. He has proven that he can play in this league and shouldn’t be overlooked.
The running back position is owned by Matt Breida. After losing Jerrick McKinnon to a torn ACL, the undrafted 23 year old was made the starter. Although he left the game last week in overtime due to an ankle issue, he participated in practice Wednesday and is expected to play.
Breida has been very productive in his second season with the Niners. He has rushed for 794 yards and added another 255 receiving. In 10 of his 13 appearances this season he has played at least 39 percent of the offensive snaps. He has shown good burst and has the speed to go the distance as his longest rush this season was for 66 yards.
The other back worth mentioning is one of the two Pro Bowlers this team has produced, fullback Kyle Juszczyk. He is a do it all fullback as he is able to not only pave the way for running backs, but also slip out himself and catch passes. Shanahan uses him in a number of ways and has shown that he is a very unique weapon to have. With a league moving further and further away from the fullback position, Juszczyk shows that the position can still be very effective.
The two starting receivers are Dante Pettis and Kendrick Bourne. Feel free to pause reading here and go google those guys because I’m sure the occasional fan has never heard of either. Well, Pettis should ring a bell as he was a second round pick.
He has emerged as the best reciever on this team outside of the tight end position which we will get to shortly. Pettis has produced highly in recent weeks which should please Niners fans as it should help justify them trading up in last years draft 15 spots in the second round to select him out of Washington.
Early in the season it was looking like a mistake as he was not producing and battled a knee sprain that sidelined him for three weeks. However, over the past four games, Pettis has caught 17 balls for 338 yards and four touchdowns. He is getting his feet under him and beginning to show the reason why he was a second round pick.
Bourne, on the other hand, is yet another undrafted guy starting for this team. He was a solid receiver at Eastern Washington, but was often overlooked due to playing next to Cooper Kupp. Bourne has just 33 catches this season for 355 yards and three touchdowns.
His biggest game came against the Arizona Cardinals back in October where he caught 7 balls for 71 yards. Aside from that, he has not had a game with more than 4 catches. All in all, he is not a major threat on the outside and should not be an issue for a very strong Bears secondary.
The best player on this offense and maybe on the entire team is tight end George Kittle. The second year guy out of Iowa has exploded this season with 72 catches for 1,154 yards and four touchdowns. He is second in yards amongst tight ends and has earned a spot in the Pro Bowl.
What makes him so dangerous is that he can take a four yard pass and make a house call. He is athletic enough to outrun defensive backs as his two touchdowns of 82 and 85 yards this season proves. When you add in the fact that he is doing these type of things with a quarterback that was fourth on the depth chart to start the season, it becomes that much more impressive. Kittle has added himself to the group of elite tight ends in this league and is only in his second season. The Bears will have their hands full with this guy Sunday.
The offensive line from left to right is Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, Weston Richburg, Mike Person, and Mike McGlinchey. Joe Staley is the veteran of this group and his still playing at a very high level. He ranks 6th amongst tackles according to PFF.
Tomlinson is a former first round pick and is playing much better ball than he was with the Detroit Lions. McGlinchey is having another above average year and is proving to be one of the better young right tackles in the game. According to PFF, he ranks 16th amongst tackles.
The 49ers rank 10th in rushing this season averaging 123.4 yards a game. However, they come in giving up the 7th most sacks with 44 on the year thus far. The tackle play is the strength of this offensive line and it will need to be performing at their best to slow down the likes of Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd this week.
As I mentioned earlier, in a league falling in love with three receiver sets, the 49ers have done the exact opposite. Kyle Shanahan’s offense is ran primarily out of the 21 personnel, meaning two running backs on the field with one tight end and two receivers. To be exact, 41 percent of their offensive snaps will come out of this personnel grouping.
To compare that with the league, the second ranked team is the New England Patriots who come out in 21 personnel on just 28 percent of their snaps. The main reason for the niners running this so often is due to the ability of Kittle as a pass catcher. He simply needs to be on the field for this offense to go.
The motion in this offense is key. They will often come out in the I-formation and then shuffle the fullback out to the left or right. By moving the fullback out like this they can do a number of things. He can set the edge much easier on outside zone plays which is obvious.
However, Shanahan will switch this up so that the defense stays on their heels. That same motion of the fullback can lead to sealing the backside of an inside zone play which will allow the tackle to get to the next level.
On top of the fullback motion, you will often see the tight end lined up wide before being motioned back inside. Most teams do this, but the fact that the Niners do it with a fullback is what makes it unique. By having a fullback there, it allows the tight end to crash down and leave the outside defender unblocked where the fullback can pick him up. Shanahan uses a mixture of all of these concepts to create a very confusing rushing attack for a defense to defend.
The play action pass is obviously what comes next after this complex rushing game. The play action will have all the same looks as the run. The deep cross is a staple of any offense and is a key component here as well. It gives the quarterback a simple three-level read which can help younger quarterbacks especially as the case is with Mullens.
The primary look is having a receiver run a corner route and then have the receiver or tight end from the other side run a deep crossing route under that. Finally, the fullback can leak out to the flat or the tight end from the backside. This play becomes even harder to defend when ran with the right personnel. For instance, with a 21 personnel look, the defense will be forced to have their run stopping defenders in the game.
However, Kyle Juszczyk is not just any fullback and he can win those battles in the pass game against run defenders. It is a simple concept ran on offense, but it can create huge problems for a defense if they do not possess the guys to keep up. The good news for the Bears? Their linebackers are versatile enough to be on the field in both running situations and passing.
Matchup the 49ers can exploit: Dante Pettis vs. Prince Amukamara
Amukamara is having a fantastic year, do not get that twisted. However, if we had to look at one spot on the defensive backfield that has not been elite, it has to be Amukamara. Davante Adams is one of the league’s best receivers and showed it last week as he was able to get open often against Amukamara. Pettis has 4.4 speed and that can be a problem for Amukamara.
Furthermore, it is looking more and more that Eddie Jackson will not play this week which means Deon Bush will see the field at free safety. There is no better thing for a corner than a safety that has his back. Bush will not provide the same type of help so it will be up to Prince to hold his own more times than not. This is not anything he is not capable of doing, it just can be something to keep an eye on.
Matchup the Bears can exploit: the versatility of their inside linebackers vs. Shanahan’s 21 personnel
As I mentioned earlier, this scheme by Shanahan can cause huge issues for a defense not capable of keeping up. That should not be the case with the Bears, however.
They should be able to keep their linebackers on the field to defend the passing game out of this formation as well as the runs. Juszczyk is an elite fullback and can be a headache for most linebackers, but the Bears have the speed to stay with him out of the backfield. The discipline of Smith and Trevathan should also be on display as they will not be sucked in on the play action often and able to distinguish those backside leaks to the flats from the fullback spot or tight end.
Many are calling this a trap game for the Bears coming off of a very emotional win last week. The 49ers are coming off an impressive win over the Seahawks in overtime and are playing well themselves. However, at the end of the day the Bears simply have the better team and this game should not cause too many problems.
On top of this, the Bears still have something to play for as they are in reach of getting a first round bye in the playoffs if the Rams are to lose. Matt Nagy should have these guys prepared and focused on the goal at hand rather than overlooking a team with a losing record in the Niners.
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