The Chicago Bears are going to have an interesting problem on their hands when they take on the San Francisco 49’ers on Sunday night in the Bay Area.
With wide receivers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Josh Morgan all ailing, and with receiver Marquess Wilson on injured reserve, the team’s limited depth at the receiver position is being exposed in a big way just one week into the season. Santonio Holmes is still healthy, but with the other three out and Micheal Spurlock being released to make room for Eben Britton on the 53-man roster, this team is in desperate need of some guys to catch the ball for Jay Cutler.
That’s where running back Matt Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett come into the picture. In the Bears’ Week 1 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the duo combined for 16 catches, 157 yards, and a touchdown in the contest. They were targeted a total of 19 times in the game, and that success rate is a good indication of where the players were when they were thrown the ball: over the middle in soft spots provided by the defense.
The 49ers have one of the best defenses in the league, but even they have some soft spots right now. With players like Navarro Bowman and Aldon Smith out, the team’s front seven isn’t as good as it was last season, and the Bears are going to have to take advantage of that.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they may not have the personnel to take advantage of some of those issues. The Cowboys targeted eight different receivers last week, with running back DeMarco Murray and tight end Jason Witten catching five combined passes for 39 yards. The duo was targeted a total of 10 times, but between Romo’s erratic passing and the 49’ers’ tough defense, they were largely held in check.
The Bears also targeted eight different receivers in the game against the Bills, but at least one of those players (Spurlock) won’t be on the field Sunday, and it’s entirely possible that two more (Morgan, Jeffery) might not be either. Even if they are, and even if Marshall lives up to his word that he’s going to play, he isn’t going to be at 100% in the game, and the Bears will likely go into the game with only four (or five, depending on if they promote Chris Williams or another receiver from the practice squad) healthy pass-catchers.
A lot of attention has been paid to the team’s defensive weaknesses, and rightfully so as they go up against one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. Colin Kaepernick, Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis form the nucleus of a group that could give the Bears fits, and their inability to close gaps and get pressure on the quarterback in Week 1 would be disastrous if they repeated that performance.
Even with that being the case, the potential offensive shortcomings could be even more worrisome. Being able to spread the ball around is key to minimizing double-teams on your most effective receivers, and while the 49’ers struggled against Dallas’ run game last week (Murray ran for over 100 yards), they could take advantage of the dearth of healthy receivers on the Bears and stack the box to prevent Forte from doing so.
It’s going to be a fascinating battle when the two teams collide, but with receivers ailing and the Bears facing some big question marks after an opening loss, this battle could quickly turn into a bloodbath if they’re not careful.