Here are five things to watch when the 49ers host the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, as they look to extend their win streak to three.
A real test for Mike McGlinchey
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey, the No. 9 overall draft pick, is having a very good rookie season. Sunday should provide his toughest test to date with 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack on the opposite side.
Scouting service Pro Football Focus says McGlinchey hasn’t been the primary blocker to allow a sack since Oct. 28 in Arizona, seven games ago. Mack, meanwhile, is percentage points behind J.J. Watt for the top grade among all NFL edge defenders, and remains in the running for Defensive Player of the Year while he’s helped resurrect the “Monsters of the Midway.”
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Mack’s combination of speed and strength is unique. Even Broncos star Von Miller, whom McGlinchey held up well against two weeks ago, is a different kind of player.
“(Mack’s) bigger, he’s stronger,” McGlinchey said. “He uses more power than Von. Von, the challenge with him is staying in front of him. With Khalil, it’s just about everything. Von’s in a class of his own in terms of get-off and that kind of stuff. But Khalil, he’s so multiple in how he could rush you, that’s what his biggest strength is.”
The 49ers expect Mack to split time against McGlinchey and Joe Staley on the left side, while Leonard Floyd will rush on the opposite end. Floyd had two sacks of Aaron Rodgers last weekend. Former 49er Aaron Lynch is doubtful due to an elbow injury.
“A young Russell Wilson”
Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky plays a lot like Alex Smith: a good athlete who lacks elite arm strength. And, he’s playing under Matt Nagy, who coached Smith the past five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. They’re used in similar ways in a similar scheme.
But 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh sees similarities to another quarterback with whom the 49ers are familiar.
“He’s like a young Russell Wilson back when Russell first came out, where he just runs, and he’s got tremendous speed,” Saleh said.
Trubisky is fifth among quarterbacks with 402 yards rushing, including several scrambles. The second-year pro has 34 scrambles to 26 designed runs, according to Pro Football Focus.
That could benefit San Francisco, which plays predominately zone coverages, making it more difficult for Trubisky to find running lanes. Trubisky in Week 2 had one of his least-efficient running games of the season against the Seahawks, who run the same scheme as the 49ers. The best chance to slow the Bears is to force Trubisky to stay inside the pocket. His 235 yards passing per game ranks 23rd.
Get the running game going
The 49ers have the NFL’s 10th-ranked rushing offense and have run for fewer than 100 yards just twice in 11 games. But they’re averaging 81 yards over the past three games, the fewest in the NFL, and just 3.09 yards per attempt.
That could be attributed to playing from behind for most of the Seahawks game two weeks ago and Matt Breida’s absence against the Broncos in Week 14. Breida was in the lineup last week and had 50 yards on 17 carries.
Chicago, meanwhile, boasts the league’s second-ranked rushing defense, allowing 84 yards per game, and has allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns. The Bears can credit strong linebacker play from veteran Danny Trevathan and rookie Roquan Smith, who was selected one spot before the 49ers took McGlinchey. Smith leads the Bears with 107 tackles.
Takeaways: Problem or statistical anomaly?
There’s little year-to-year correlation between takeaway numbers in the NFL, although San Francisco understands it needs to upgrade its talent to improve those numbers.
“There’s no doubt,” Saleh said. “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life. ... I’m baffled, I’ll be honest with you. (But) it can flip in a hurry.”
The 49ers have five takeaways, including two interceptions, which would be the fewest since the 1982 Houston Oilers, who had three in the strike-shortened, nine-game season.
The Baltimore Ravens, despite having the league’s top scoring and yardage defense, have the second-fewest takeaways with 11 after leading the league with 34 in 2017.
Saleh would argue the 49ers have been subject to bad luck while failing to take advantage of their opportunities to take the ball away.
“They come in bunches. It’s all (pass) rush, coverage, everything tying together,” Saleh said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be in the middle of the pack with all the opportunities that we have had. For one reason or another, I swear I’ve never seen this, or more snake-bitten. I should probably go to church a little more.”
A Nick Mullens radar game
Just how good is Nick Mullens? Perhaps Sunday’s game will offer the clearest picture yet of what the 49ers have in their former practice-squad quarterback. The Bears’ defense is widely regarded as the best in the league, offering Mullens his toughest test since becoming the starter in early November.
Mullens’ three wins were against defenses ranked 26th (Raiders), 25th (Broncos) and 19th (Seahawks) in yardage. Chicago ranks third, though two of its four losses were against inferior opponents on the road in overtime - Miami (7-7) and the New York Giants (5-9).
“They have a great front seven and their secondary does a good job of playing with the pass rush,” Mullens said this week. “They do a good job of just using the pass rush to their advantage.”
The Bears could be without safety Eddie Jackson, their top playmaker in the secondary who has terrorized quarterbacks. He has six interceptions and three touchdowns (on two interception returns and a fumble return). Jackson sprained his ankle last week and was ruled doubtful.