The 49ers got a much-needed win in Chicago, improving to 3-4 and showing that perhaps all their games should be played on the road with their backs against the wall. Every phase of the offense was in sync: from Kyle Shanahan, the play-caller, to Jimmy Garoppolo hitting several key throws, to the running game dominating the Bears 3-4 front, to the offensive line only allowing three total pressures and no sacks.
It came against a generally bad Bears team, but that’s what good teams do: Dominate inferior opponents. So no one should care if the win came against the Bears. Instead, what matters is how thoroughly complete they looked, and perhaps, hopefully, they’ve turned a corner on what was turning out to be a bleak season.
On the day, Jimmy was 17-of-27 for 322 (84 yards came on a screen pass to Deebo, and another 50 came on a deep shot before halftime), committed no turnovers, and was not sacked. Jimmy struggled on a few throws but made some critical and impressive throws that put his offense in a position to score points.
The running game added 145 yards on the ground and all three touchdowns. Mitchell had gains of 27, 27, and 39 that led to 13 total points and ended up, in my own opinion, being the difference in the game above all else.
Defensively, the 49ers gave up the bulk of their rushing yards to the Bears when they forced rookie quarterback Justin Fields to scramble after broken pass plays. Otherwise, they would have held their opponent to under 100 yards rushing. Fields gained 103 yards on just scrambling. Rookie Khalil Herbert had 72 total rushing yards, 66 of which came in the first half, six in the second half after some excellent adjustments.
Running game zone toss versus the Bears front
The Bears are a heavy 3-4 front defense and have been for a long time. This didn’t change when former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was their head coach. This hasn’t changed with defensive coordinator Sean Desai, who spent time as a Bears defensive quality control coach from 2013-2019 Fangio’s tenure.
3-4 defenses like to set the edge hard with their outside linebackers and discourage teams from trying to get to the edge. Speaking with a recent but former offensive lineman who played multiple years in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and wished to remain anonymous, he told me, “we always want to get to the edge, though.” The Shanahan offense has answers for aggressive 3-4 teams.
Against the Bears, the 49ers called “Zorro Cat” and “Zorro” a wide zone toss to the strong side. “That’s our go-to against 3-4 teams. It gives us better angles to handle the outside linebackers that align wider and set the edge harder,” this player told me.
The run concept allows the tight end to kick out the wide defensive end or linebacker on the line of scrimmage while the fullback blocks inside and protects the tight end’s defender from any inside move before moving on to the next defender through the hole.
The 49ers are in 21 personnel and motion Charlier Woerner (No. 89) over to the left side of the offensive formation. Before the snap, Garoppolo sends fullback Kyle Juszczyk (No. 44) on a jet motion from his condensed alignment from right to left. The Bears are in a 3-4 front with 2-high coverage shown pre-snap.
The play call has “CAT” tagged to hit that switches the fullback and wide receiver responsibilities: CAT tells the receiver to block the safety downfield and tells the fullback to block the corner. Juszczyk helps Woerner and ensures his defender will not be able to influence the play before reaching the corner while Deebo Samuel is engaged in driving the safety downfield.
“It’s all about angles and making blocks easier,” the anonymous lineman told me. Mitchell bursts through the hole behind Woerner and Juszczyk and scoots in behind Deebo for a 27-yard gain.
The 49ers called the play two more times, the second and third clips in the above video, once with no “CAT” tag and once with the “CAT” tag. The second run gained 27 yards again while the 3rd run, the second one tagged with “CAT,” gained 39. The very first run led to three points, the second run led to a touchdown, and the third run led to an additional three points as the 49ers won by 11—three of the most important plays of the game.
Kyle and Jimmy efficient on third down
Kyle Shanahan was in the zone with his play-calling on Sunday versus the Bears, while Jimmy seemed to capture some of his most electric moments as a quarterback, and the two could not be stopped in the second half.
First, Jimmy hit a throw on third down that schemed up brilliantly versus the Bears cover-0 blitz. Then, knowing the Bears defense would probably send a zero blitz at Garoppolo, Shanahan dialed up a dagger concept with a deep thru route over the middle into the space vacated by the safety.
The Bears send the blitz at Garoppolo, but he hangs in there just long enough to use his quick release to get the ball out before being hit by a blitzing defender. On the other end, receiver Mohammed Sanu is in the slot running the deep thru route. Garoppolo places the ball on him perfectly so that he does not have to break stride and scoots for a 21 yard gain and first down.
Garoppolo made a nice play off-script in the second quarter when he found receiver Brandon Aiyuk on the sideline.
The play call has Aiyuk in the slot running a “lookie slant” from the right side of the formation. Pre-snap, the motion and defensive shift tells Garoppolo he should probably have gone to Sanu on the left, also running a lookie slant. Garoppolo looks for Aiyuk, sees he’s not open, then comes back to Sanu, but it’s too late.
He escapes the pocket, and as he does, Aiyuk immediately goes into scramble drill mode and gives Garoppolo a target at the sideline. Garoppolo rifled it in there for a 23 yard gain.
Later in the first half in the late second quarter, Garoppolo converted another nice third down with a 15-yard completion to Brandon Aiyuk on a “lookie slant.”
The Bears defense is showing cover-2 man pre-snap that rotates to cover-1 “robber” post-snap. The coverage pre-snap indicates to Garoppolo that he has Aiyuk singled up inside on the lookie slant as the Bears have no protecting the middle when the linebacker chases the running backswing.
Easy read. Garoppolo confirms what he sees with the motion and immediately looks for the lookie slant, hits the top of his drop, and delivers a nice pass while converting the third down.
On the very next play, Shanahan, understanding the Bears would give them a quarters/cover-6 coverage at mid-field, dialed up a shot play designed to beat quarters coverage. The bears were in quarters to the field and cover-2 to the boundary, a common way to play cover-6 in the NFL.
The play call was a post-dig concept widely known as “Mills” or “pin” (Post/In). Deebo, as the outside receiver, is running the deep post route, and Ross Dwelley (No. 82) is running the dig route across the middle. Dwelley’s dig route holds the deep safety to that side of the field, leaving Deebo 1-on-1 with the cornerback, so Garoppolo uncorks the pass to Deebo down the middle of the field and leads him toward the hash for a 50 yard gain.
Does that route combination look familiar? It should. As you can see in the cut-ups above, it’s been a very successful play for the 49ers since Shanahan arrived.
On Garoppolo’s final completion of the day, he found JaMychal Hasty on a lookie slant on their Jaguar concept. Shanahan took advantage of the personnel grouping of the defense to put a smaller, faster running back in space against a slower defensive end/outside linebacker Trevis Gipson (No. 99).
The Bears are in cover-6 again with quarters to the two receiver side to the top of the screen. The lookie slant is the right read against two deep safeties since the defense is able to eliminate the stick-nod route from the number three receiver on the opposite side. Hasty slants across the face of the defender, and Garoppolo hits him in stride for a 23 yard gain.
Defensive run-game adjustments
In the first half, the run defense gave up 66 yards to running back Kalil Herbert. On Herbert’s big run in the first quarter, 22 yards over left tackle, the 49ers were in an over front defense in nickel.
In an over front, the 3-technique defensive tackle is aligned to the tight end side or strong side, which can make it more difficult to run on. Under fronts are more conducive to generating a pass rush due to the 1-on-1s it can create. Fred Warner is aligned to the weak side with K’waun Williams as the force defender in the over front above.
The Bears gashed the defense for 22 yards on this play by running at Demetrius Flanagan-Fowles (No. 45) and Williams (No. 24).
Later on, in the second half, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans swapped Warner and Flanagan-Fowles and shifted their alignments over by one gap. The results were that the 49ers' run defense had four stops that went for zero or negative yards (three plays on this drive went for negative yards).
Later on, in the fourth quarter, the run defense had three more stops that went for zero or negative yards. They did give up a few yards on drives sandwiched between the start of the third and mid-way through the fourth, but they were not significant as the Bears did most of their work through the air. The defense made them 1-dimensional with a rookie quarterback, and it paid off.
Can the 49ers keep this train rolling? We’re going to find out a lot about what this team is made of as they take on the Arizona Cardinals though they may be facing backup and former 49ers backup quarterback Colt McCoy as Kyler Murray deals with a shoulder injury. The Cardinals will also be without J.J. Watt.
This is a weakened Cardinals team, but this is also a win the 49ers badly need if they want to stay in the playoff race and fight for a wild card spot. Another performance like they had on Sunday just might be enough.