With Jay Cutler ruled out of Monday night's primetime showdown and Alex Smith's participation still in question, the ground game will be key to determining who leaves San Francisco in second place in the NFC.
Week 10 has come and gone, and, in all honesty, has taken a bit of luster off of what was expected to be a marquee matchup between two of the league's top teams. The 49ers came out of their bye week looking as though they forgot to set their alarms, that is to say, half-asleep, and fought back from an early 14-0 deficit against the St Louis Rams to earn a 24-24 tie. The Rams came into the game as a massive road underdog, but were able to hang season-worst totals on the 49ers' defense in both yards and first downs allowed. The Bears, while losing to one of the best teams in the league in the Houston Texans, failed to defeat a top-ten team for the second time in two chances, leaving questions about the validity of their status as an elite team. At this point, their most impressive victory is either against Indianapolis, in Andrew Luck's first game as a pro, or at Dallas, a game in which Tony Romo threw five interceptions. Their two losses are at Green Bay and at home to Houston. Needless to say, the Bears need a victory over a playoff opponent to prove that they've arrived.
What's at stake in the game is second place in the highly competitive NFC. Second place, of course, receives a first-round bye in the playoffs (though the 49ers may want to avoid any more byes after last week's showing). With the Atlanta Falcons, despite last week's perfection-spoiling loss to the Saints, holding first place and an easy schedule, the route to rest and as many playoff home games as possible clearly lies in attaining the No. 2 seed. This game will go a long way in deciding who finds themselves in that position at season's end. Last week's tie threw a monkey wrench in the works, as head-to-head matchups and the entire tie-breaking mystery machine will most likely be rendered meaningless for the 49ers. As if the Bears need any added pressure, a loss on Monday, if accompanied by a Packers victory over the Lions will drop them to second-place in the NFC North.
The importance of the game is undeniable. What is still confusing to discern is the outcome. What hasn't been mentioned in regards to week 10 is that both the 49ers and the Bears lost their starting quarterback in the second quarter to a concussion. Jay Cutler has already been ruled out of the showdown. For Alex Smith and the 49ers the diagnosis was more positive. He's listed as questionable and many signs and reports point to him starting on Monday. An efficient and accurate day from whomever the 49ers have under center will greatly increase their chances against a Bears defense that has already created 30 turnovers in the first nine games.
Luckily for both teams, they each feature one of the best running backs in the game in Matt Forte of the Bears and Frank Gore of the 49ers. Forte held out during the offseason for a long-term deal and was given a four-year, $32 million contract. He's been his usual self, accounting for 578 yards and 4.7 yards per carry. While that is not an eye-popping total on the ground, Forte's value to the team is enhanced by his pass-catching abilities out of the backfield, having caught over 50 passes in each of his first four years in the league. This should come in handy for Jason Cambell, making his first start since breaking his collarbone in week 6 last season while playing for the Oakland Raiders. Forte, however, has struggled this season against the better run defenses that he's faced. Three of the Bears' opponents, the Cowboys, Packers and Texans, are ranked in the top-13 against the run and, not coincidentally, those games account for Forte's three lowest totals of the season. The 49ers run defense is ranked 6th in yards per game surrendered and will come into the game expecting a run-heavy attack from the Campbell-led Bears. Michael Bush, Forte's primary backup was previously a featured back for the Oakland Raiders and was signed as insurance in case Forte's hold out lasted into the season and has taken on roughly a third of the carries.
For the 49ers, Frank Gore has been nothing short of spectacular. After suffering countless leg injuries throughout his career, conventional wisdom had Gore beginning the gradual slide into mediocrity that most backs in the league face once they hit their late twenties. At 29, Gore is having one of his best years yet. His 5.4 yards per carry on the season matches his career high set in 2006 when he was focal point of the offense and rushed for 1,695 yards. He averaged nearly 20 attempts per game that season. His 15.6 carries per game will keep his yards from reaching the stratosphere, but the lowered workload has kept him fresh thus far while allowing capable backup Kendall Hunter more touches. Hunter is also averaging over five yards per carry on the season. The 49ers run game leads the league in yards gained and average yards per carry and improved offensive line play deserves much of the credit. Both Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, former first-round picks from the Mike Singletary era brought in for this exact purpose, are garnering Pro Bowl consideration and Alex Boone, a surprise at right guard after playing tackle throughout his career, have bolstered the line, making it the best run blocking unit according to Football Outsiders.
On the other side of the ball, both the 49ers and Bears field upper-echelon defenses. The Bears are ranked fourth in rushing yards allowed while the 49ers are ranked sixth, though the 49ers' 3.7 yards per rush against beats the Bears' 4.2 allowed by a long shot. Both defenses feature middle linebackers that could end up in the Hall of Fame. For the Bears, Brian Urlacher mans the middle where he's been anchored since 2001. He is widely considered the best middle linebacker of his generation. For the 49ers, Patrick Willis is once again dominating the running lanes. Whereas he used to be a one-man army, now he has company in NaVorro Bowman. The pair, with Urlacher starting to slowdown, are commonly cited as the best two middle linebackers in football. Football Outsiders has the 49ers ranked No. 1 in weighted rush defense with the Bears coming in third. The Bears pass defense has 19 interceptions on the season, led by Tim Jennings' eight, and may push the 49ers to lean more heavily on their run game. If the 49ers are forced to be one dimensional, either by the Bears' defense or if Alex Smith is unable to suit up, the game gets a lot more interesting.
This is clearly going to be a defensive game. The two teams are ranked one and two in points allowed and Monday should be no different. If Alex Smith starts, the 49ers should be a clear favorite over the Cutler-less Bears. If it were the other way around, the Bears would probably be considered favorites, despite being on the road. The game will probably play out like last weekend's Bears-Texans matchup, a slugfest for the ages. At the end of the day, the 49ers superior run blocking should prove to be the difference. The Bears unit is ranked 16th by Football Outsiders, and against the 49ers front seven, that won't be good enough. Although the Niners have allowed a 100-yard rusher in three of the last four games, without Jay Cutler at quarterback, the Bears lack the passing game to keep the 49ers from keying on the run. Jason Campbell is a career 82.6 passer and was afforded every opportunity to hold down the Redskins starting job before being jettisoned. The Raiders did the same, after a shorter trial, and that sums up his career. 'Not good enough to quarterback the Raiders' is not the best endorsement a pro QB can put on their resume nowadays. As long as Gore and Co. can churn up the yards on the ground, limiting the need to throw, the 49ers should be able to avoid the turnovers that the Bears have relied on for victory. I've got the 49ers to win this one 17-9 while holding the Bears out of the endzone, a feat they've accomplished four times already this season. Here's to the 49ers getting back on track.