There are certainly a lot of storylines heading into the 49ers’ game Sunday at the Chicago Bears.
The 49ers (3-8) have been competitive at home. But on the road, the 49ers have fallen flat. The coaches have tried to identify the reasons for their woes away from Levi’s Stadium.
“Maybe we need to sprint off the bus” and show “that sense of urgency and attack that football game,” 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said.
The Bears (5-6) appear to be playing better than their talent. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had autonomy to run that side of the ball on Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers teams. And Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase, the runner-up to Tomsula for the 49ers’ head-coaching job in January, has Jay Cutler playing the best football of his career.
Here are 10 players to watch on Sunday:
10, K Phil Dawson, 49ers
The 49ers’ offense has not been able to generate many scoring opportunities this season, so that places added importance on Dawson being about to finish the job. And that’s exactly what he has done since his first attempt of the season was blocked. Dawson has converted 18 consecutive field-goal opportunities. If he makes his next kick, he’ll own the top two made-FG streaks in club history.
9, S Antrel Rolle, Bears
Let’s go back to the 2005 draft. The 49ers publicly narrowed their choices with the No. 1 overall pick to four players. The lone player on defense the 49ers considered was Rolle. While he has not proven to be worthy of the top overall pick, Rolle has put together a strong career with three Pro Bowl selections. He is the quarterback of the Bears’ defense and carries out Fangio’s orders and vision.
8, QB Blaine Gabbert, 49ers
Gabbert has certainly put himself into position in his first three starts to head into the offseason as the presumptive starting quarterback for 2016. But perception is a week-to-week proposition in the NFL. And Gabbert has to again complete a high percentage of passes, avoid sacks and take care of the football. He is no stranger to Fangio’s defenses, as he practiced against the scheme all of last season while running the 49ers’ scout team. “He runs the same scheme,” Gabbert said of Fangio. “He’s a 3-4 guy but he’s doing what their personnel allows him to. They’re not too exotic. They do have some exotic blitzes but they just play what they’re going to play and make you execute against it.”
7, OLB Pernell McPhee, Bears
The Bears’ defense does not have a lot of talent, but one player who could start for just about any team in the league is McPhee, who signed with the Bears this offseason after recording 7.5 sacks in his final season with the Baltimore Ravens. McPhee plays the defense’s left side, and he is very stout against the run. A lot of times he’ll be matched up on that side against a tight end. He’ll also provide a stiff challenge for 49ers right tackle Erik Pears. McPhee is tied for the Bears’ lead with five sacks.
6, DL Mike Purcell, 49ers
Purcell got his first NFL start last week, and he figures to see more action on base downs as the 49ers look to stop the run on first and second downs. Purcell also recorded a sack of Arizona’s Carson Palmer. Said defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, “He gives us depth at end. He gives us depth at nose. So, he’ll be playing both of those spots. And he’s a stout guy and his performance has earned him more opportunities.”
5, WR Anquan Boldin, 49ers
Boldin is not showing the overt frustration that seemed to bring him to the boiling point earlier in the season while Colin Kaepernick was at the controls of the 49ers’ offense. Boldin has recorded back-to-back games of 93 yards receiving. Boldin needs 36 receiving yards on Sunday to become the 18th player in NFL history with 13,000 or more career receiving yards. With six catches and 42 yards, he will become the first player in NFL history to record at least 50 receptions and 600 yards in his first 13 seasons.
4, WR Alshon Jeffery, Bears
Jeffery provides a huge matchup problem for the 49ers’ secondary due to his size and strength. The fourth-year player is 6 foot 3 -– giving him a 3-inch advantage on the 49ers’ tallest starting cornerback, Kenneth Acker. Jeffery is the Bears’ top wideout with 43 receptions for 605 yards and two touchdowns. He could provide Cutler with a favorable matchup in the red zone.
3, TE Vance McDonald, 49ers
When the 49ers selected McDonald in the second round of the 2013 draft and assigned him No. 89, then-coach Jim Harbaugh drew comparisons to McDonald and Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka. Of course, Ditka played for the Cowboys, but he’s more recognized now for his work as the Super Bowl-winning coach of Da Bears. McDonald is finally showing the skills that attracted the 49ers to him. And with Garrett Celek out of action with a high-ankle sprain, McDonald will continue to get a lot of chances.
2, QB Jay Cutler, Bears
The 10-year veteran is having the best season of his career under Gase’s direction. He has never thrown fewer than 14 interceptions in a full season. Through 11 games, Cutler has 14 touchdown passes and just six interceptions. With a passer rating of 92.5, Cutler is on pace to have a rating of better than 90 for the first time in his career. The Bears have won three of their past four games, and Cutler’s steady play is a big reason.
1, RB Shaun Draughn, 49ers
Draughn, who has been released eight times in his NFL career, has proven to be indispensible for the 49ers. When he played every snap in last week’s game, it was the first time a 49ers running back had been used that extensively since 2010, when Frank Gore played every snap in two games that season. The 49ers will want to run the ball with Draughn. Chicago has the league’s 25th-ranked run defense. The 49ers have gone six games without scoring a rushing TD. Carlos Hyde scored the last 49ers TD on the ground on Oct. 11 at the New York Giants, the game in which Hyde sustained a fractured foot. Draughn could be making a case for himself as the 49ers’ backup running back in 2016.