Can Blaine Gabbert Overcome Bears’ Vic Fangio’s Defense in Week 13?


The 3-8 San Francisco 49ers head to Chicago to take on the Bears (5-6) this Sunday at Soldier Field. The 49ers are coming off a disappointing loss marred by penalties and missed plays (yes, you Tramaine Brock), whereas the Bears have won four out of their last five games and are threatening a wild card berth.

This will be the first time the 49ers match up with former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who enjoyed great success at the 49ers. Fangio was interviewed for the 49ers head coach position after the departure of Jim Harbaugh, but he was overlooked in favor of current head coach Jim Tomsula. Once he lost out to Tomsula, effectively being passed over by a subordinate, he had no other option but to leave the organization.

When you have been unceremoniously “dumped” by the team you worked your butt off for four seasons — with the success you brought to your unit (four top-10 ranked NFL defenses) — revenge is most likely going to be on your mind. In today’s politically correct environment (and the desire to not give the opposition “bulletin-board” material), nothing is ever said publicly to give the opposition any extra motivation.

However, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that Fangio has had this game circled on his calendar after he was hired on by the Bears as their defensive coordinator. He is likely to be burning inside and wanting to “bring it” to the 49ers offense to show 49ers management what they missed out on.

That being said, the 49ers offense has improved markedly since quarterback Blaine Gabbert was inserted into the lineup. Per Pro Football Focus, Gabbert in his limited time as the starting QB has impressively out-played his counterpart, Colin Kaepernick. Gabbert has an overall ranking of plus-68.6, compared to Kaepernick’s plus-48.6.

The biggest difference has been how Gabbert can see the field better and throw on the run successfully. On passing snaps he ranks a plus-65.1 whereas Kaepernick was a terrible minus-46.1. His throw last week against the Arizona Cardinals to tight end Blake Bell was a great example of him running one way, but seeing the other side of the field and finding a wide-open Bell, per the NFL’s official twitter feed:

Gabbert has really increased his accuracy on his throws, as Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee notes, he has a completion rate of 65.3 percent in his three starts, compared to a 53.3 percent when he was at the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“You’re more accurate with the football staying smooth, having a smooth delivery,” Gabbert said via Barrows. “Because when you overthrow a football, you’re not really gaining that much more velocity. But you tend to be more erratic with it.”

Barrows also notes that QB coach Steve Logan should take some credit after suggesting to him to reduce the velocity off his throws:

"But during the recent offseason, quarterbacks coach Steve Logan asked him to experiment with throwing at perhaps 85 percent of his maximum velocity, which led to better accuracy and increased confidence."

Gabbert has a tough test against Fangio. The Bears pass defense ranks second in the NFL at 214.5 yards per game. That is very good, however when you dig deeper into the stats there are opportunities for Gabbert to exploit.

The Bears pass defense has allowed 20 passing touchdowns, which is the worst number out of the top-five ranked pass defenses. They also don’t intercept the ball much, as they only have six interceptions on the year, again by far the worst out of the top-five ranked defenses.

The key for Gabbert is to get the offense into the red zone as much as possible, and to keep throwing the ball at the lower velocity with accuracy. He can use his legs to his advantage — he should only run when it’s absolutely necessary. Fangio is not known for blitzing much — he prefers base defenses while only rushing the base four defensive linemen.

Fangio’s defenses are typically fundamentally sound, where his players stick to their role without exception. It wouldn’t be overly surprising to see him implement some extra blitzes in this game to exploit the porous right-side of the 49ers offensive line. His plan is likely to get Gabbert as uncomfortable in the pocket as possible, and get him to move to the left to expose the right-handed QB’s weak side by throwing across his body.

Blitzing the weak right-side of the 49ers offensive line will automatically force Gabbert to his left, unless he thinks he can run around the blitzing defenders (not recommended if the goal is to not lose yardage).

Gabbert needs to be prepared for this and be confident in his throws. His role of a “game-manager” in this matchup is the right goal to have. The football can be moved by a dink-and-dunk approach down the field, and with an effective running game (another opportunity here — the Bears running defense is ranked a lowly 29th at 128.5 yards per game) — the 49ers can get into the red zone and he can utilize his new favorite TE targets — Vance McDonald and Bell.

If Gabbert can just take what the Fangio defense gives him, then this will lead to a successful performance. The 49ers offense needs to do a much better job on first and second down, so as to prevent the third-and-long situations which have been this team’s undoing.

Fangio likes his zone defense — it is up to the 49ers receivers to get past the first-down marker and have Gabbert get the ball to that point, and not three to five yards short where the zone defense will swarm to the receiver and probably stop a first down from occurring.

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This will be a fascinating game to see what type of defense Fangio will offer up, and whether it will sway from his tendencies. If the 49ers offensive coaches and Gabbert can make the necessary adjustments, and exploit the Bears weaknesses in the red zone and lack of ball-hawking defenders, then they might be able to end the doughnut-streak on the road.