The San Francisco 49ers enter Week 11 with their fourth prime-time matchup of the season on the docket. The 49ers (6-2-1) will play host to the Chicago Bears (7-2) on Monday Night Football in a game where both teams may be without their starting quarterback.
The will be a highly competitive fistfight for NFC supremacy, as the playoff picture is beginning to take focus. The No. 3 and 5 defenses will clash on prime time in what will likely be a low-scoring affair. The 49ers are almost desperate for a win at this point, coming off a gut-wrenching tie following the bye week.
In San Francisco's Week 11 matchup, we break down what the Niners can do to best help their chances of victory.
Attack and Secure the Football
The 49ers must focus on possessing the football in this one. In a game with two defensive teams of this caliber, ball control could become a major theme.
San Francisco can anticipate a strong effort on Chicago’s part, so hopefully that lights a fire under them. The Niners need to relentlessly pursue the ball on defense and secure it on offense. This will equate to them winning the turnover margin and perhaps time of possession.
It will be about the fundamentals—carrying it high and tight and certainly no showboating. The minute the 49ers give the Bears an inch, they’ll take a mile.
Chicago will be getting after it, as they lead the league in takeaways with 30 in only nine games. San Francisco must protect the ball or it is going to fall victim to Chicago’s style of play.
Pound the Rock
After 10 weeks, the San Francisco 49ers are still the No. 1 rushing team in the league. Operating with a stable of weapons, the Niners are averaging an impressive 170.2 yards per game on the ground. On Sunday versus the Bears, they will want to deploy this top-ranked unit if they hope to win.
Frank Gore has been running like a man possessed this season. He is currently No. 2 in the NFL in yards per carry, only behind the league’s leading rusher, Adrian Peterson. Of the league’s top 10 rushers, Gore has the fewest carries by at least 15 and is ranked No. 8 in yards.
The 49ers can do several things by running the football:
1. Wear down the Bears D
2. Setup play-action
3. Help win time of possession
4. Establish balance
Additionally, this approach will aid in the neutralization of Chicago’s fierce pass rush. If the Niners are outrunning the blitz by the Bears, it’s going to cause their defenders to hold back and forfeit a step.
This will allow Alex Smith to have more time in the pocket during passing plays. If they can buy a second here or a second there, it could make all the difference.
A successful rushing attack is the key to everything San Francisco wants to do in Week 11.
One of the 49ers' biggest issues last year was red-zone efficiency—for one reason or another, they just could not score touchdowns in goal situations.
They have improved in that aspect but they need to continue to get better. Against a stout Bears defense, it is going to be difficult for the 49ers to manufacture points. So when the offense is in goal situations, it has to score touchdowns instead of field goals.
As mentioned before, one of the strengths of the 49ers offense is its ingenuity. It has an undeniable ability to get creative, drawing up route combinations and misdirection plays that create opportunities.
In the red zone, San Francisco needs to be sharp with its play selection and execute with play-intent.
When the 49ers are fundamentally sound, they are a tough team to beat. Last season, they became known as a team that doesn’t beat themselves. But unlike 2011, turnovers and penalties are becoming relevant again.
On top of playing mistake-free football, they need to emphasize the little things like blocking and tackling. They need to be sound in their assignments and finish plays. San Francisco will also make sure it wins its one-on-one matchups.
Last week, pursuit was an issue, so in Week 11, the 49ers need to work on shedding blocks and getting to the ball. At the end of the day, it's a game of hitting, so the 49ers need to do that better than their opponent.
Bring More Physicality than Chicago
In a game that is set to be very physical, the Niners will want to outhit the Bears.
San Francisco’s defenders need to set the tempo by tackling through guys. But Chicago is a team that is going to bite back, so this will be just as much about endurance.
For this match, a significant aspect when it comes to tipping the physicality scale will be winning in the trenches. The 49ers defensive linemen need to beat Chicago’s guys to the punch up front.
The entire team in general needs to play with a chip on its shoulder. It was that mentality that made the team so successful last season, but it seems that it has gotten away from that. If the 49ers act like they’ve got something to prove, they will win this ball game.
Feed the Ball to the Prime-Time Performers
The Niners often lose games when they don’t get the ball into the hands of their playmakers. On Monday night, they need to get the ball to their prime-time performers in Vernon Davis, Randy Moss and Frank Gore.
This is a game where it would pay to get the big names involved. With Michael Crabtree likely tangled up with Charles Tillman, the 49ers will need to exploit other mismatches.
These three playmakers in particular—Davis, Moss and Gore—need to touch the football.
Moss is the most notorious Monday night performer in the history of the game. Davis has 13 receptions for 169 yards and four touchdowns in three games versus the NFC North this season. And the general public knows that San Francisco typically wins when Gore gets his touches.
Limit Forte and Marshall
The 49ers can virtually take away the Bears' entire offense by limiting these two players. Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall are the top two playmakers for this Chicago team, as a formidable air and ground tandem.
One could argue that they are two top-10 players at their position, respectively.
Both players have unique skill sets and game-changing ability. They are players San Francisco’s defense must account for on every down. If Forte and Marshall are rolling, it could put Chicago in the driver’s seat.
And even when it appears that they have them locked up, the 49ers must finish. Forte and Marshall can make plays when it doesn’t look like there is a play to be made, so the Niners defenders must play to the whistle.
The truth is, without these two involved, Chicago’s offense is anemic.
Return to Prominence on Special Teams
In 2011, San Francisco had the undisputed No. 1 special teams unit in the NFL. That is probably why it was so devastating to see its season end on a special teams play. This year, there has been a decline in performance, particularly from the field goal and coverage units.
On prime time no less, the 49ers will be burdened with the responsibility of facing the incomparable Devin Hester.
And considering that San Francisco’s special teams unit hasn’t been as immaculate as it was a year ago, this is a game that is just begging it to show up. The ST coverage needs to be up to par. It cannot allow Hester even the narrowest seam of daylight because he’ll hit it.
Former 49ers ST ace Blake Costanzo, now with the Bears, left a hole in San Francisco’s coverage unit. But there are several gunners like C.J. Spillman, Larry Grant and Tavares Gooden that could step up in his place.
David Akers needs to improve his field-goal percentage, the coverage unit needs to play fast and physical, and Andy Lee needs to just keep doing what he’s doing.
Offensive Balance, Flow and Creativity
It’s peculiar—the diehard 49ers fans will probably tell you they know if San Francisco’s going to win after their first or second offensive drive.
The 49ers coaching staff is capable of scheming perfectly balanced, yet innovative offensive game plans. But the catch is, every once in a while their game plan will completely flop, drastically lowering the team’s chances of victory.
If the Niners come out displaying a creative and diverse game plan, they will put themselves in an advantageous position.
Finish In All Aspects
Whether it’s tackles, blocks, routes, assignments, quarters or halves, the 49ers have to emphasize finishing in all aspects.
Right off the bat, they have to play like the better team and show they want it more. San Francisco has to play with more energy, giving 110-percent until the whistle blows. Overall, they have to be very thorough in their assignments to give themselves a strategic advantage.
They cannot afford to give a lackluster effort in a conference matchup that's as important as this one.