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Saturday, November 17, 2012
Backfield production key for Bears, 49ers

By Mike Bonzagni, ESPN Stats & Info

NFL.com/Trevor Ebaugh, ESPN Stats & Information
Roll over each running back to go deeper into their individual trends.
The Chicago Bears enter their Monday Night matchup with the San Francisco 49ers having given up back-to-back 100-yard rushers for the first time since Weeks 13 and 14 of the 2009 season.

The 49ers’ rush defense has also struggled, allowing a season-high 159 rush yards to a St. Louis Rams offense that was ranked 20th in the league in rushing entering Week 10.

Jay Cutler is out Monday as is Alex Smith, so the running backs for both teams are likely to be prominently featured. Each offense has a very talented starter, but each team also has a quality backup who could play a huge role in Monday’s matchup.

Let’s take a closer look at what the running backs bring to the table and how each offense utilizes their unique skills.

The starters

Matt Forte is a dynamic, all-around back who presents matchup problems in every facet of the game, but is a particularly dangerous receiver. Since the start of the 2008 season, Forte ranks in the top three among running backs in targets (317), receptions (245) and receiving yards (2,161).

Forte should be targeted often because Jason Campbell has an average throw distance of only 6.6 yards downfield over the last five seasons, the shortest among all quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts.

Frank Gore is a hard-nosed runner who gets the majority of carries for the 49ers. Gore is averaging 5.4 yards a carry, fourth-best among qualified running backs and his highest since 2006. He is also averaging 1.9 yards after contact per rush, his best in the past four seasons.

But Gore gets the yards after contact when it counts. He has converted a first down when he has been contacted before the marker on 17.8 percent of such rushes, the third-highest rate in the league.

The backups

Michael Bush is a big, bruising back who primarily runs between the tackles for the Bears.

Bush is posting career lows in yards per carry (3.7) and yards after contact per carry (1.5), which could have something to do with the predictability of his rush direction. When Bush is in the game, the Bears rush between the tackles on 91.3 percent of rush attempts, the third-highest rate among qualified running backs in the league.

When any other running back is the game, the Bears are more diverse, rushing between the tackles only 75 percent of the time.

Bush still has the talent to be a factor in this game, especially since Steven Jackson rushed for 106 yards between the tackles last week against this 49ers defense.

Kendall Hunter is a speedy, change-of-pace back who is the perfect complement to Gore’s style of running.

The 49ers get Hunter the ball in space. The quarterback has pitched the ball to him on 17 of his 63 carries this year. As a result, 34.9 percent of Hunter’s runs have come outside the tackles, the third-highest rate among qualified running backs this season.

Hunter will be facing a Bears defense that has been struggling with outside rushes, allowing Arian Foster to gash them for a season-high 45 yards in last week’s loss to the Houston Texans.