How 49ers Can Improve Road Defense in Week 13 vs. Bears


The 49ers defense continues to baffle and bewilder. After a pitiful showing in Week 11 on the road at the Seattle Seahawks, the unit bounced back in some style, giving up just 19 points versus the NFL’s most explosive offense in a 19-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, leading to more head scratching over the group’s inability to perform on a consistent basis.

So good was the display of the Niners defense that San Francisco stunningly outgained the Cardinals. The 49ers finished with 368 yards to Arizona’s 337, but a host of controversial penalties combined with the offense’s failure to take advantage of the defense’s effort prevented Jim Tomsula’s team from pulling off a shocking win.

San Francisco can afford to be encouraged by the defense’s play, however, the Niners are now back on the road for their next two games, visiting the Chicago Bears and the Cleveland Browns, which are considerably more manageable matchups than what they have faced in recent weeks.

However, The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Eric Branch outlined what playing away from home has meant for the 49ers defense this season.

The Niners, per Branch, are on pace to allow 282 points on the road, good for the third most since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule back in 1978.

Those startling figures underline the staggering difference between the 49ers’ defensive play at home and away from Levi’s Stadium. But how can the Niners go about changing their fortunes in an unfriendly environment in the Week 13 matchup with an improving Bears team at Soldier Field?

Lose the lethargy

The primary issue preventing the 49ers from being successful away from home this season has been an apparent lack of energy.

San Francisco has been slow out of the gate on the road in 2015 and were 20 points down inside the second quarter in the recent 29-13 loss at the Seahawks.

Jim Tomsula acknowledged intensity has been a huge issue for the 49ers in away games and, per Chris Biderman of, said it was the first thing addressed as the team started their preparations for the Bears:

"You’re not going to change flights. You’re not going to change that you’re going on the road. So, the changes need to come from each one of us and how we have ourselves prepared to play.Maybe we need to sprint off the bus…that urgency and attack that football game."

The Bears are ranked at No. 13 in the league on offense by Football Outsiders and have plenty of reason for confidence having won three of their last four — including a triumph at the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving — and only lost to the Denver Broncos by two points. If the Niners start slow on defense again, this one could get ugly in a hurry.

Stop the run

San Francisco has had little problems shutting down opposing ground games within the confines of Levi’s Stadium.

Devonta Freeman was held to 12 yards, Adrian Peterson was bottled up for 31 yards in the season opener and the Cardinals managed only 70 yards on 29 attempts last week, an average of 2.4 yards per carry.

In keeping with the theme of road game disappointment, however, the run defense has been far from stout on its travels, as Phil Barber of The Press Democrat points out.

It is not just in the road games with the St. Louis Rams and the Seahawks in which the 49ers have struggled. San Francisco allowed DeAngelo Williams put up 77 yards and three touchdowns in the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2 and then gave up 110 yards and two scores to Chris Johnson of the Cardinals a week later.

The Niners now face a Chicago rushing attack featuring two very talented backs in Matt Forte — who is still working his way back to his best from injury — and rookie Jeremy Langford.

Langford has six touchdowns in his last six games and both he and Forte excel as rushers and pass-catchers out of the backfield. San Francisco must keep this duo quiet in order to have any chance of posting its first road win of 2015.

Unsettle Jay Cutler

An inability to generate consistent pressure has really hampered the 49ers defense in 2015.

Aaron Lynch has been San Francisco’s best pass-rusher by some distance, posting 6.5 sacks, and also recording 12 quarterback hits and 35 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.

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However, Lynch was held without a sack in the loss to the Cardinals in which the Niners were only able to bring down the Arizona signal-caller once, not counting the roughing the passer call that controversially nullified one by Quinton Dial.

Although the Niners only had one sack of Palmer, they were able to harass the former Cincinnati Bengal and Oakland Raider. Palmer was hit nine times and hurried on 14 occasions, with Lynch accounting for eight of those pressures, per PFF.

Instead the issue for San Francisco was getting home and, with the way of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been performing against pressure in 2015, it is imperative the 49ers able to bring him down on a regular basis.

Cutler, per PFF, has been pressured on 39.6 percent of his dropbacks, completing 54.5 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and one interception and taking 15 sacks.

The Niners saw what Cutler can do with time last year as he led the Bears to a comeback in which they scored three four quarterback touchdowns to win 28-20 in Week 2 of the 2014 season, spoiling San Francisco’s regular season opener at Levi’s Stadium.

With the benefit of strong checkdown options in Forte and Langford, an excellent wide receiver in Alshon Jeffrey and a decent tight end in Zach Miller, Cutler has the weapons to take advantage of the 49ers defense.

Yet this is a quarterback who has proven prone to mental errors in the past. To force those mistakes, the Niners need to get home on pressures and put up multiple sacks.

Get assistance from the offense

Against the Cardinals there was little the 49ers defense did wrong and, aside from some questionable officiating, the primary reason for the defeat was the offense.

While the Niners finished with more yards than the Cardinals, Blaine Gabbert and the offense failed to finish drives and more tellingly, once again struggled in the first half.

San Francisco has still yet to register a first-quarter touchdown in 2015 and, as a result, the Niners have leant on the their defense to keep them in games, which is something it has been unable to do on the road.

There are plenty of improvements the Niners can make but, going into Soldier Field, the onus should be on the offense to lift some of the burden by putting points on the board early.