Three writers for 49ers.com offer different opinions on the keys to the San Francisco 49ers upcoming road game against the Chicago Bears.
Let's get to the four downs for Week 13 of the 2015 regular season, when the 49ers will look to avenge a loss last year in the inaugural game at Levi's® Stadium.
1st Down: What is the key to the 49ers playing better on the road?
@Joe_Fann: Start fast
San Francisco has yet to score a first-quarter touchdown this season. Two weeks ago against the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers offense opened the game with three-and-outs on its first three possessions while the defense allowed the Seahawks to score touchdowns. A lot goes into "starting fast." Converting on third down, getting stops and scoring touchdowns in the red zone are the top three things that come to mind.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 49ers missed 10 tackles in their Week 11 road loss to the Seahawks. That led to 508 total yards of offense for Russell Wilson and Co. The Bears rank 12th in the league as team averaging 5.93 yards after catch. Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford make plays out of the backfield as well, so it'll be paramount for the San Francisco defense to wrap up at first chance. There's no room for hesitancy. As Jim Tomsula has frequently said over the last few weeks, "Just attack it. Just see it and attack."
@TaylorPrice: Put up pointsJoe, thanks for taking my answer. I'll shift my thoughts to a greater theme. Beyond scoring fast, the 49ers need to score consistently. Thirteen points in back-to-back weeks against two of the NFL's top defenses were commendable performances, but the Blaine Gabbert-led 49ers have not posted more than 17 points this season. Chicago has allowed 24 points per game this season, so scoring north of 24 will be key for San Francisco. Converting third downs and red-zone opportunities to produce points has to be a must for the 49ers on Sunday.
2nd Down: Who is the player to stop on the Bears?
@Joe_Fann: Jeremy Langford
I know Forte is back, but Langford has still scored in five of his last six games including each of the last four. Chicago's fourth-round pick ran for 48 yards on 12 carries (4-yard average), while Forte found just 44 yards on 15 carries (2.9-yard average). The two ball-carriers will continue to split carries, but Langford will most likely be the one to see any goal-line carries.
@TylerEmerick: Alshon Jeffery
Groin and shoulder injuries have limited Jeffery to just six games this season, but when the wide receiver has been healthy, he's been a beast to cover. And for the first time in a month, Jeffery was not listed on Chicago's injury report this week. The wideout has averaged 100.8 receiving yards per game, which is the third-highest in the NFL this year and would mark the highest total in Bears franchise history. Jeffery caught three passes for 47 yards against the 49ers last year, but that was when Brandon Marshall was the top target. Now it's Jeffrey's turn to shine, and he's taking advantage of the spotlight. San Francisco's secondary will be tested by the 6-foot-3, 216-pound receiver.
@TaylorPrice: Jay Cutler
The Bears will go as far as Cutler's right arm will throw them. After a couple of erratic seasons, Chicago's signal-caller has put up solid numbers this season (14 touchdowns, six interceptions and a quarterback rating of 92.5). Cutler has only been sacks 15 times this year. Applying pressure on the 10-year veteran will be a key emphasis for the Eric Mangini-coached 49ers defense. You can't let Cutler get comfortable in the pocket. That's when he goes deep for Jeffery.
3rd Down: How can the 49ers improve in the red zone?
@Joe_Fann: Get Torrey Smith involved
Smith has two touchdowns on the season, both coming from 75-yards out or longer. Gabbert has done a great job of getting his tight ends involved in the red zone, but I'd love to see him send a few passes Smith's way. Seven of Smith's career-high 11 touchdowns in 2014 came inside the red zone. Out of Smith's 32 career scores, half of them have come from inside the 20-yard line, eight of which have been from inside the 9-yard line.
@TylerEmerick: Avoid sacks and penalties
Although the offense has moved the ball more consistently with Blaine Gabbert at the helm, the 49ers still rank last in red-zone efficiency – converting just 39 percent of their trips into touchdowns. Against the Arizona Cardinals last week, San Francisco's first and last drives were derailed by sacks. The team failed to score points on either possession despite at one point being in field-goal range. On San Francisco's two drives that did net field goals, the team was forced to settle for three points due in large part to penalties that put the offense behind the chains. Clean up the negative plays and the results should follow.
@TaylorPrice: Run the ball
Sounds odd, right? The 49ers haven't scored a rushing touchdown since Week 5. Pierre Garçon scored the 2-yard run back on Oct. 11. Since then, Hyde has missed the past four games and has been ruled out for Chicago. So without the top goal-line threat, it's important that Shaun Draughn is featured in the red zone. The journeyman rusher has not scored a touchdown in his three games this season. Red-zone rushing is a physical mindset, and the 49ers must assert themselves on the ground against a Bears defense that has allowed three rushing scores all season.
4th Down: Which is more likely to happen: Gabbert throwing for 300 yards or Draughn rushing for 100 yards?
@Joe_Fann: Draughn runs for 100
Chicago's weakness defensively is their rush defense. The Bears have allowed a 100-yard rusher in two straight games and are allowing 4.8 yards per carry on the season. That number ranks 30th among NFL defenses. Chicago's 1,414 rushing yards allowed through 11 games ranks 29th. I think this is the week Draughn finally finds some open space in the ground game after facing three straight stout run defenses. Draughn's game high this season is 58 rushing yards. I'd be shocked if he didn't eclipse that on Sunday.
@TylerEmerick: Draughn runs for 100
December in the Windy City – that sounds like a perfect recipe for a power running game. The offensive line has been playing better of late, and Blaine Gabbert has given the passing attack a considerable lift. Then you have Draughn, who last week became the first running back in the NFL this year to play 100 percent of the offensive snaps in a single game. Chicago has allowed 128.5 rushing yards per game in 2015, so I see Draughn at least breaking the century mark.
@TaylorPrice: Gabbert for 300First off, he did it last week with a career-high, 318-yard performance against Arizona's premier secondary. Gabbert has only surpassed the 300-yard mark twice in his career, but his completions and passing yards have increased in all three of his starts this season. Chicago has only given up 300 or more passing yards once this season (Matthew Stafford had 405 yards in Week 6), but I'm going to be bold and take the quarterback stat line, especially when my two colleagues have chosen Draughn going for a buck and change in the Windy City.