It's going to be difficult for the Chicago Bears to vanquish the San Francisco 49ers on opening night at brand new Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. The Niners plan extensive opening ceremonies that include celebrity guests, a six-minute film honoring the franchise and a Grammy winner singing the National Anthem. Festivities begin at precisely 5:01pm Pacific time. Get it? The average ticket price was north of $370 per person. It's a safe bet that fans forking over that kind of green will be ready to party -- and party loudly.
Chicago Offense versus San Francisco Defense.
Quarterback Jay Cutler is blessed with a trio of ball catchers that has reinvented The Windy City's famed "Monsters of the Midway" on the offensive side of the ball. Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett led a 2013 passing attack that racked up 4,281 yards, 32 touchdowns and 215 first downs. Last weekend, Cutler showcased his complete mastery of the aerial game with long bombs (44 yards to Jeffery) and red zone connections (Bennett). In two minutes. Too bad that was strictly the opening possession. Unfortunately, Marshall has missed some practice with the ankle injury he suffered in Week 1, while Jeffery has a sore hamstring. Uh-Oh.
The good news for "Da Bears" is that the San Francisco secondary is having health problems of their own. CB Tramaine Brock left Week 1 with a toe injury and is questionable for Week 2. CB Chris Culliver exited the Dallas game with a concussion and it's unknown if he'll be cleared to play. If he cannot, look for Perrish Cox back in the starting lineup. If both starting corners cannot play, rookie Dontae Johnson is the only other option at nickel. Despite the missing starters, this group intercepted Dallas' Tony Romo three times. Talented as he is, Chicago's oft-grumpy signal caller can also be careless with the football -- which is somewhat against the object of the game, no? Uh-Oh.
Cutler should be feeling blessed at not having to face outstanding SF pass rusher Aldon Smith, though his jubilation may be marginally tempered by the presence of LDE Ray McDonald. The latter's arrest for domestic violence places him in that limbo where he is awaiting discipline from the League. Yet the 49ers, in an apparent abandonment of their former class as an organization, have kept him on the field. Behind McDonald lurks OLB Ahmad Brooks. Both are high on any QB's "best avoided at all times" list. The front seven dumped Romo thrice in Week 1. Chicago fans would probably like to believe that their beefed up offensive line is stronger than that of the beleaguered Cowboys. Ah, delusion is a powerful force. With injuries to center Roberto Garza, backup center Brian de la Puenta and guard Matt Slauson, life will be a bit precarious for No. 6 on Sunday night. Uh-Oh.
The Bears rushing threat certainly has, um, teeth. Matt Forte ran for 1,339 yards in 2013 and averaged eight yards per reception. He contributed 169 total yards against the Bills and one cannot ask for more than that. He will probably not have the services of FB Tony Fiammetta for the second week in a row. Forte and TE Martellus Bennett will face the San Francisco linebackers all evening. Formidable Niner Patrick Willis is heir to Ray Lewis' tradition at MLB. Coaches will probably try to keep Willis on the TE, since he's one of the few LB's who can handle such a challenge. That matchup alone should provide NBC with some of its patented "Must See TV." However, NaVorro Bowman's ongoing rehab will leave third-year man Michael Wilhoite on Forte and if San Francisco feels that they need to play the safeties back to protect young corners, the slot may open up.
San Francisco Offense versus Chicago Defense.
Was the 49ers O more productive than in pre-season action because they were playing against the frankly sad Cowboys D? Were the Buffalo Bills an offensive juggernaut because the Chicago defense is as "soft" as feared by their faithful fans? Not that such passionate folk would overreact after only one game, of course.
San Francisco's running game is ready to rock. Frank Gore hit 10,000 career yards in Week 1 and rookie Carlos Hyde was widely considered to be the best RB in the 2014 draft. ESPN fantasy compared him to Stephen Davis. The O-line should welcome back RG Alex Boone this Sunday, hoping that any rust from his holdout will fall quickly off his massive frame. Former Miami player Jonathan Martin has been manning RG. This unit has very little continuity and could be vulnerable to a pass rush.
If, that is, Chicago can generate a pass rush. Thus far, Lamarr Houston is performing this role without much assistance from fellow pricey free agent Jared Allen. Well-known DT's Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea need to turn up the heat in the middle this weekend and venerable linebacker Lance Briggs must live up to his reputation and light a fire under the run D.
After two seasons of staring down WR Michael Crabtree, QB Colin Kaepernick is (as of Week 1) listening to his coaches and spreading the ball around. The result? TE Vernon Davis scored two touchdowns and the premier feisty WR on the West Coast (Anquan Boldin) pulled down eight catches for 99 yards. (For those who missed Thursday Night Football, the East Coast King of Feistiness is Baltimore's Steve Smith, Sr.) Nevertheless, one can't help but ponder that the Niners offense as a whole should have been more dominant in Dallas. The squad ran a relatively leisurely 54 plays in the era of hurry-up O, managed a mediocre 319 total yards and Kaepernick barely cracked 200 on the passing yardstick. As long as the D is forcing multiple turnovers, this may cut it. But it's not exactly ideal production.
Despite his slow start in 2014, Kaepernick is a dangerously mobile QB and that will put pressure on the Bears safeties. Not Chicago's strongest suit. The only truly noteworthy safety in Week 1 was Christ Conte with an interception. He then allowed RB Fred Jackson to lay on an embarrassingly effective stiff-arm in a run that set up the Bills game-winning FG. Uh-Oh.Young Players to Watch (Chicago):
- Rookie CB Kyle Fuller's brother Vincent was a safety for the Tennessee Titans and his other brother, Corey, is a WR for the Detroit Lions. The first-round draft pick from Virginia Tech compiled five tackles in his professional debut.
- The second-string RB is rookie Ka'Deem Carey. The fourth-round Arizona product is 5'9" and 207 lbs. He had one carry in Week 1 for four yards. Carey has talent, if he can conquer his violent off-field tendencies.
- Rookie punter Pat O'Donnell hails from the University of Miami. He was pressed into service four times, with an average of 40 yards per punt. He is the first punter drafted by Chicago since Todd Sauerbrun. You're in good company, kid.
- Guard Charles Leno (Boise State) is a swing offensive lineman, which could matter in a game where three veteran linemen are featured on the injury report.
- Return specialist Bruce Ellington was chosen in the fourth round. He played at South Carolina and is currently the starting return man for both punts and kickoffs. He earned academic as well as athletic honors and was a three-year starter in basketball. He is developing quickly at WR, which could give SF the speed they need at this position.
- Promising rookie rusher Carlos Hyde is also an excellent pass blocker, courtesy of his decision to play in the pro-style offense at Ohio State.
- Second-year safety Eric Reid has become a secondary star, living up to his first-round status out of LSU. He started his big play ways at the end of last season.
- Safety Jimmie Ward was the team's first-round selection this year. He played his college ball at Northern Illinois and is essentially Plan B if any of the starters can't hit the field. The 49ers drafted him to replace Carlos Rogers. Which is easier typed than done.
- NT Ian Williams was signed as a free agent out of Notre Dame in 2011. His reputation is that of a smart, determined player with strong instincts and will. He has returned from a broken leg with torn ligaments that required four surgeries and Jim Harbaugh swears he's a better player than before the injury.
Prediction: The "Uh-Oh Meter" has spoken. San Francisco by a touchdown. At least.