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Monday, November 19, 2012
New name, same identity

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

If you're reading this in Las Vegas, Antigua, Costa Rica, Delaware, or my hometown of Steubenville, Ohio -- anywhere where this kind of advice is worthwhile and (mostly) legal -- bet the under Monday night.

For the second straight week, the Bears will play a nationally televised game with a better chance of Peanut Punches than scoring punch. There won't be "Bears Weather" in San Francisco, but don't expect a flurry of scoring, either.

The hot button question for the night: Can anyone reach the 20s in this game? After all, without Jay Cutler throwing touchdowns and interceptions, how is anyone going to score on offense at Candlestick Park against these two defenses?

With two backup quarterbacks starting, I'm expecting a 9-6 game. If the concussed duo of Cutler and Alex Smith were starting, I'd bump that up to 13-10. This was always going to be a defensive game.

While Brandon Marshall has been as good as advertised, the Bears are proving that no matter how they do it, when this franchise is good, it's because of a great defense and a mediocre-to-simply-effective offense.

Quarterback Jason Campbell is a perfectly fine fill-in, but the offense isn't so hot with quarterback/tough guy Cutler, let alone without him. Every week, we talk about the offense finally coalescing, and it's happened in fits and starts, but no one has talked about the offense taking over the defense's starring role since that Week 1 explosion. In two games against elite teams, Green Bay in Week 2 and Houston last week, Cutler and the offense have been throwbacks to disasters past.

Conversely, while the 49ers have an efficient, highly ranked offense under Smith, I don't foresee his promising backup Colin Kaepernick (last seen in that tie game with St. Louis) lighting up the Bears' secondary. His biggest asset is his running ability, which will test the linebackers, but won't be the difference. While Frank Gore is arguably the best running back not named Adrian Peterson, if he goes for more than 100 yards, it won't be by much.

Not that there's anything wrong with a defensive showcase on a national stage.

This is the kind of game the Bears can win without Cutler just as easily as they could win with him. If the Bears can -- stop me if you've heard this before -- run the ball effectively, Campbell won't have to star. He will have to make some throws and you can bet Marshall is going to be swamped with defenders. Will Campbell be able to spread the ball around? And if he does so with any kind of accuracy, will the receivers be able to catch it?

Jason Campbell
Jason Campbell's safe and effective approach may prove more valuable than Jay Cutler's gunslinger style.

We talk a lot about tests during a season, because it's fun to craft a linear hero's narrative in which each game builds on the last. This two-game stretch, Houston and San Francisco, was circled a long time ago. The Texans result wasn't much of a surprise, considering Cutler left at halftime. The defense performed admirably, the offense less so.

After that loss, it made this game slightly more important than it already was. Green Bay lurks behind in the standings, ready to take a tiebreaking lead with a Chicago loss. Minnesota, next week's opponent, is a game behind. A Super Bowl contender does need to make the playoffs.

While so much of the chatter last week was about Cutler's concussion and the state of head injuries, and Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher's shaky belief in their meaning, the Bears can't take a game off with their quarterback. So we're actually going to need to see some kind of surprising performance from the rest of the offense and a better gameplan from offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Maybe one with a heavy dose of running, one that sticks with that gameplan, even when it's slow to develop.

Forte has had only two games with 20 or more carries (22 two weeks in a row) and is averaging nearly 15½ carries a game. While every game has its own story, and every defense its own challenges, it's a little mystifying why Forte hasn't gotten more looks considering he's averaging 4.7 yards per carry.

Michael Bush has 80 carries on the season, but 54 came in the first four games. His bruising style seems like it would help in taut games, but in the past month, the Bears have played three close games, a 13-7 win over Detroit, a 23-22 win over Carolina, and a 13-6 loss to Houston, and Bush had 12 total carries for an impressive 75 yards. He also had a big fumble in the first quarter last week.

With two running backs capable of carrying a game, some think Cutler's absence could be a good thing for the offense, as Cutler basically just stares down Marshall on most plays. Hey, who can blame him?

This season, Cutler has been tough, no doubt, and a standup guy with a new, often discombobulated offense, capable of making big plays. But he hasn't been very good. He's 25th in QBR (ESPN's quarterback rating system), 24th in passer rating, 30th in Football Outsider's DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement), 28th in passing yards per game and, well, you get the picture.

Most people have realized Cutler isn't the archetypal big-numbers quarterback, despite his myriad gifts. At best he should run like a hybrid Ferrari, capable of great speeds but also good for city driving. Cutler just has to make a few big plays, try not to throw multiple interceptions, and for sure, don't sulk on the sidelines if things aren't going his way. (Image is everything!)

That bring us to his replacement. I don't expect much out of Campbell, the nicest Bears quarterback since Caleb Hanie.

If I had to guess, I would say he's got an 11-for-23, 118-yard game coming. San Francisco is only middle of the pack in opposing QBR, but Campbell showed an alarming lack of range in the second half last week against Houston, which has the best QBR defense (the Bears are second). Maybe he'll find a way to deliver a pass to someone other than Marshall. Maybe he can keep the Niners' defense honest enough to let Forte get some outside lanes.

While Cutler is definitely a better option than Campbell -- his highs are worth most of his lows -- I think Cutler would've been good for two to three interceptions and about five sacks in San Francisco. Maybe by doing less, Campbell will be less dangerous to his team's own cause.

As for the defense … well, we know what it's going to do, but Gore provides a rare challenge if he gets enough carries.

Gore has had a workload similar to Forte's, but he's been more consistent. After last week's set of games, according to Football Outsiders, Gore was tied for second in DYAR and fifth in success rate (successful running plays -- the definition of success being adjusted based on down and distance -- divided by total running plays). By comparison, Forte was 13th and 26th, and Arian Foster, last week's opponent, eighth and ninth, respectively.

Foster had 102 yards last week, but almost all came in the first half, and he wound up averaging 3.5 yards per carry. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub couldn't crack 100 yards. The outbreak of "Bears weather," which is loosely defined as temperatures below 50, winds harder than a stiff breeze, and slightly more precipitation than a Bryan Cox spitting attack, certainly helped neutralize Houston. But it was also Tim Jennings picking off two passes and the defense working cohesively, as designed.

Consistency in life is nice. We know what we're getting from the Bears every week: great defense and the tease of an exciting offense, which sometimes is enough.

The odds are against the Bears this week (they were 7-point underdogs, but that number was dropping as of Monday morning), but a few breaks will decide this game. One thing is for sure: You will be watching in the fourth quarter, late into the night. It's going to be close and low-scoring. And there's nothing wrong with that.