The 49ers finally ended their losing streak, defeating the Chicago Bears 33-22 on Sunday. San Francisco bounced back from a sloppy start to control the pace of action in the second half in what might have been their best all-around performance of the season. The Niners' offense never punted, ending every drive in a touchdown or field-goal attempt, and the defense held the Bears to nine second-half points.
It’s been hard to hand out good grades over the past few weeks, but that’s not the case this week.
Every game Jimmy Garoppolo plays over Trey Lance is probably stunting the 49ers' long-term prospects, but Garoppolo played well enough to justify a spot atop the depth chart for the first time all season. He finished 17-28 with no throwing touchdowns but racked up 322 yards through the air alongside a pair of rushing touchdowns at the goal line.
Most importantly, Garoppolo consistently pushed the ball downfield. In the final minute of the first half, with the Niners looking to get some points heading into the half, Garoppolo delivered what might have been the best deep ball of his career to Deebo Samuel, which traveled 53.1 yards in the air, his deepest completion of the year. However, that one deep ball was far from the only time Garoppolo challenged the Bears' secondary. He finished the game with 9.3 air yards per completion, the first time a 49ers quarterback eclipsed 9.0 yards per completion in a regular-season game since Week 14 of 2017 when Garoppolo was making his second start with the 49ers.
It still might be too late for head coach Kyle Shanahan’s dream scenario this season to come to fruition. However, fans saw on Sunday what the Niners head coach was hoping for this season. Garoppolo played like a quarterback that could lead the 49ers to the playoffs and generate trade interest this offseason. It’ll take more than one performance, though, for that to become a reality. We’ll see if Garoppolo can keep rolling next week against the Cardinals.
Running backs: A
Rookie Elijah Mitchell has quickly become Kyle Shanahan’s most-trusted running back amongst his healthy options. It was easy to see why against the Bears. Mitchell rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. The 49ers' offensive line gave him plenty of room to operate, but he maximized and occasionally exceeded the space in front of him. Mitchell already looks like a veteran in space, using his blockers well to get as many yards as he can.
The other rookie running back, Trey Sermon, did not receive a carry, even in short-yardage situations where he looked like the Niners best remaining back. Instead, when Mitchell was on the sidelines, Ja’Mycal Hasty received some head-scratching short-yardage carries that did not go anywhere. Granted, Hasty did flash his receiving ability, catching two passes for 29 receiving yards.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk only got one touch this week, but he impacted several plays as a blocker. It’s always exciting when Juszczyk finds open space as a receiver, but his blocking ability is what makes him one of the best fullbacks in the NFL. He helped spring several big runs with his lead-blocking against the Bears.
Tight ends: B-
Shanahan is not asking much from his tight ends as receivers with George Kittle out. However, what fans have seen from the team’s depth pieces has been solid. Both Charlie Woerner and Ross Dwelley are above-average blockers and did an excellent job this week.
Woerner appears to have usurped Dwelley on the depth chart. He’s a slightly better athlete, and he might be the 49ers' best skill-position blocker outside of Kittle and Juszczyk. So do not be surprised if Woerner remains a bigger part of the offense even when Kittle returns.
Wide receivers: A-
Deebo Samuel and Mohammed Sanu both had big drops early, but the 49ers' receivers delivered their best performance of the year from that point on.
Samuel had the highlight of the day when he took advantage of great blocking on a screen for an 83-yard gain on third-and-20. The Niners scored their first touchdown of the game on the drive and never looked back. Despite two early drops, Samuel finished with six receptions for 171 receiving yards.
While Samuel was the star, Brandon Aiyuk finally was a significant part of the offense. Shanahan said it was his best performance of the season postgame, and it looked like he was returning to his 2020 form. Aiyuk hauled in four catches for 45 yards and a two-point conversion but could have had more if he was not on the wrong side of one of Garoppolo’s few uncatchable throws of the day.
Garoppolo still had some passes sail on him a bit, but 49ers receivers did a good job high pointing the ball and making the most of those plays. Granted, it was also easier to haul in those catches because the Bears' defensive backs were rarely in a position to make a play on the ball, which is a credit to Garoppolo, Shanahan, and the receivers.
Offensive line: A
The Bears were missing Khalil Mack, their most impactful defender, but the Niners O-Line crushed what remained of Chicago’s defensive front. Garoppolo was never sacked, and a look through his highlight plays reveals ample time and space in the pocket to maneuver. Jimmy G was not sacked once on the day, and, per PFF’s preliminary grades, Laken Tomlinson was the only player to allow more than one pressure.
The same was true in the run game. Trent Williams and Alex Mack were particularly notable on several screens and runs, where both of the veteran linemen made blocks well past the line of scrimmage. This unit was supposed to be a strength but has been hampered by inconsistency all year. However, they finally lived up to their expectations.
If the line’s A-grade was up for debate, they ensured a top mark when they helped Mitchell push the pile for nearly five yards on his only rushing touchdown of the day:
Keep on pushing!— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 31, 2021
#SFvsCHI on FOX pic.twitter.com/ZA1oYE9oZO
Defensive line: B-
Nick Bosa was all over the field on Sunday. He blew up several plays, recorded five pressures, three tackles for loss, and two sacks, but also lost contain on several of Bears quarterback Justin Fields’ runs. Fields ran for 103 yards on ten carries, most of which were improvised scrambles, and the line’s inability to stay in their lanes played a big part.
Fields is an incredible runner, but it’s far from the first time a mobile quarterback has given the 49ers defensive line problems. Fields’ incredible 22-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter is a great example. Fields does a fantastic job evading Arik Armstead off the edge and turning the play around, but you can also see Bosa get caught in no man’s land when he vacates the weakside to run at Fields in the middle of the field.
.@justnfields ARE YOU SERIOUS?!? #SFvsCHI | #DaBears pic.twitter.com/o9vUGJL5h5— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) October 31, 2021
Fields has been prone to sacks all season, trusting his ability to escape a bit too much. That tendency continued on Sunday and enabled the 49ers line to rack up 20 pressures. Then, in the game’s biggest moments, they turned those pressures into big plays.
Samson Ebukam was hit with a roughing the passer penalty in the fourth quarter that Fields’ acting was more responsible for than anything Ebukam did. Two plays later, Ebukam got free off a stunt and wrapped up Fields before he could escape. Ebukam’s speed was a huge reason the Niners prioritized adding him last offseason in free agency, presumably to chase down quarterbacks like Fields. He did a great job finishing the play for his first sack of the season.
Huge 3rd down sack by @sosa50— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) October 31, 2021
#SFvsCHI on FOX pic.twitter.com/Ig8q8aJFy2
Fred Warner acknowledged that tackling was a problem for the 49ers early, and the linebackers were a leading culprit. Without Azeez Al-Shaair or Dre Greenlaw available, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles saw a notable uptick in playing time and only recorded one tackle on the day. A telling stat given how heavily the Bears relied on the run game.
Warner still finished with five tackles and was as impressive as ever in coverage. Warner made a great play against tight end Jesse James in the endzone on a big goalline stand to force an incompletion.
Josh Norman once again showed off his big-play potential, forcing one fumble and hauling in his first interception of the season on the Bears' final drive. However, Norman once again struggled in coverage and committed a bad defensive holding penalty when the Bears were driving in 49ers territory. Unlike in previous weeks, though, the rest of the team played well enough to cover up those issues.
It was clear that defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans was not taking any chances with his corners after their egregious stretch of defensive pass interference penalties the past few games. Norman and Emmanuel Moseley gave opposing receivers plenty of space off the line of scrimmage, even on some third-and-shorts. Fields took advantage of that decision for easy first-down conversions multiple times, but Chicago never completed a big throw downfield. Given the 49ers' questionable depth at corner, that might be an approach the 49ers have to stick with.
Talanoa Hufanga was all over the field in his first career start. The rookie out of USC has been impressive in his limited playing time this season, and that carried over to Sunday. Jimmie Ward had another solid performance, finishing with five tackles, but was forced to leave the game with a quad injury that could keep him out going forward. Tavon Wilson stepped in late in the fourth quarter and did little of note, but that could be a spot to watch going forward.
Special teams: B-
The 49ers' special teams were rarely called upon on Sunday. Mitch Wishnowsky was never asked to punt. The kickoff team never surrendered a big return. Aiyuk did nearly break a punt return for a touchdown, but he was tackled after 21 yards. Trenton Cannon only returned one kickoff for 29 yards.
Kicker Joey Slye did get a good amount of work, missing another extra point and an early 48-yard field goal, but he also knocked in kicks from 48, 52, 22, and the game-clincher from 32 yards out. The scouting report on Slye was straightforward when the Niners signed him; he’s got plenty of leg and erratic accuracy. Given Robbie Gould’s struggles beyond 45 yards, it’s hard to justify getting up in arms about his replacement.