As fun as clinching the NFC North against our bitter rivals is, there are still regular season games to play. Games that could be the difference between getting a first-round bye or not.
The Bears do not control their own destiny when it comes to a first-round bye. However, they are just a single game back of the Los Angeles Rams for second place. The Bears can still lose, but since the Rams have a fairly easy schedule, the Bears will have to most likely win out to have a realistic shot.
That starts this week against the San Francisco 49ers.
The season has not gone as expected for San Francisco. The 49ers were the sexy pick of national pundits to go from worst to first after trading for Jimmy Garoppolo, who led the team to a 5-0 record to close out last season.
Unfortunately, Garoppolo was lost to injury after only three games and so too was their playoff hopes.
While their record might not be impressive at 4-10, they are riding a two-game winning streak against two potential playoff teams in the Broncos and Seahawks.
The Bears coming off an emotional, playoff-drought-breaking win, going against the 49ers, a team on the rise with nothing to lose, seems like a classic trap game scenario.
Here’s how they can avoid that …
The 49ers are on their third quarterback of the season in Nick Mullens, who also happens to be their most successful. Mullens leads all 49er quarterbacks, including Garoppolo, in completion percentage, yards per attempt, yards per game and passer rating.
His stat line looks good on paper, yet when you dig a little deeper, the true picture comes into focus.
His biggest weakness and the reason he went undrafted two years ago, is his lack of arm strength. Because of this, he needs to throw over the middle of the field to succeed. He simply does not have the arm strength to hit the intermediate throws toward the sideline.
65 percent of his passing yardage this season comes in the middle of the field. For comparison’s sake, Mitch Trubisky only has 46 percent of his yardage coming in the middle of the field.
To add to this, head coach and offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan likes to test inside linebackers with play action in order to open up throwing lanes for his limited quarterback. Since Mullens took over as the starter, he has used play action on 26.7 percent of his dropbacks, good for eighth highest in the league.
Additionally, Mullen’s is completely dependent on the play action to succeed. His completion percentage drops 4.6 points on non-play action passes and his yards per attempt drops by 3.8, which is the highest differential in the entire league. His passer rating on non-play action passes falls from 122.1 to 86.7.
If you take away the 49ers’ play action, you take away their entire offense.
Due to Mullen’s tendency to throw over the middle, it’s no surprise that his tight end is his favorite weapon. George Kittle, who has been a pleasant surprise for the 49ers this season, has proven to be a reliable target all year long and has seen an uptick in play since Mullens took over.
Since then, Kittle’s targets per game increased from 6.8 to 8, receptions per game increased from 4.6 to 5.8 and he has the same number of touchdowns in his last six games as he did in his first eight with two.
Kittle is the only weapon the 49ers currently have on offense. While he is having a fantastic season with 1,154 yards, no other 49er has more than 355.
Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan will be key to stopping throws over the middle and not biting on play action, and with Eddie Jackson out, look for Shanahan to test Deon Bush with Kittle over the middle as well.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears offensive game plan should be easy: throw the football.
The 49ers are somewhat stout against the run giving up only 4.2 yards per carry, 10th best in the league, but they are very susceptible through the air.
They are one of five teams to allow a passer rating over 100 this season ranking 29th in the NFL at a rate of 102.9. This is in large part due to their 15-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio. On the season they only have two interceptions. (That’s not a typo) Two. 87 different NFL players have at least two interceptions.
Trubisky should be in line for a nice confidence boost as we head towards the playoffs.
The 49ers are enjoying a nice little win streak, but there is no reason they should be a threat to a team like the Bears. As long as they didn’t celebrate too much after their win last week, the Bears should be able to take care of this one easily.
That is what Super Bowl teams do. Contenders don’t lose to a team like this. And if the Cardinals can somehow beat the Rams this weekend, the Bears will control their own destiny in their quest for a first-round bye.