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Hub Arkush: San Francisco 49ers pose interesting test for Bears

December 23, 2018

The San Francisco 49ers were not a great football team with Jimmy Garoppolo.

But they opened the season 1-1 with a hard-fought, 24-16 loss at Minnesota in the opener, knocked off Detroit in Santa Clara 30-27 and were trailing Kansas City in Arrowhead 38-24 with just under six minutes to play when Garoppolo went down for the year with a torn ACL, and there went the season.

Since the Garoppolo injury, it’s not as if they’ve had a flood of other players go down, but they have lost other key contributors, including Jerick McKinnon, signed via free agency to be the No. 1 back, top receiver Pierre Garcon and their best homegrown defensive back, Jimmie Ward.

Then there were the trials and tribulations of sophomore linebacker Reuben Foster, drafted late in the first round because the Niners couldn’t believe he was still available to lead a group loaded with top draft picks — a top 10 talent with bottom-10 character — who finally had to be released a few weeks ago, unable to deal with his off-the-field demons.

Backup QB C.J. Beathard started the next five games after the Garoppolo injury, but with just eight touchdowns, seven interceptions and a completion percentage barely over 60 percent, the 49ers went 0-5.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan summoned 2017 undrafted free agent Nick Mullens, an undersized spitfire out of the bullpen for a Week Nine start against the Raiders, and the Niners exploded all over the Silver and Black with Mullens completing 16-of-22 for 262, 3 TDs, 0 INTs and a 151.9 rating.

Obviously, Mullens couldn’t maintain that pace, but five weeks later he has a 96.0 passer rating (Mitch Trubisky is 94.1), 10 TDs, 6 INTs, and after dropping a heartbreaker to the Giants and laying an egg in Tampa, the 49ers snapped a three-game Denver winning streak with a 20-14 spanking and a four-game Seattle winning streak last Sunday with a 26-23 OT win.

The 49ers’ running game now revolves around Matt Breida, who replaced McKinnon.

Breida is a pipsqueak by NFL standards at 5-11 190 pounds, and he has been nicked and bruised pretty regularly this season, but he is a giant next to Tarik Cohen and has a 5.3-yard average per carry and 26 catches for another 255 yards and 5 TDs on the season.

Mullens’ favorite target is quite possibly the best young tight end in football and former Iowa Hawkeye teammate of James Daniels, George Kittle, whose receiving slash line of 72-1,154-4 has landed him in his first Pro Bowl.

Kittle could offer the key matchup of the game with Eddie Jackson almost certainly in street clothes and Deon Bush drawing the primary coverage on him with help from Leonard Floyd, Sherrick McManis and at times possibly even one of the Bears starting corners.

If the Bears take away Kittle, the Niners shouldn’t have enough firepower to beat them.

Wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and rookie Dante Pettis – drafted seven spots ahead of Anthony Miller – are big-play threats averaging 18.3 and 18.6 per catch, respectively.

On defense, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are former 17th and 7th overall picks in the draft and the 49ers second- and third-leading tacklers, but only Buckner has become a difference maker — with 11 sacks and 17 tackles for loss.

Remember, Solomon Thomas was the third overall pick in 2017, and would have been second had the Bears not made the Trubisky trade, and he has been slow to adjust to the NFL with just one sack and 3 ½ TFLs.

Fred Warner is a third-round pick out of BYU this year, selected with one of the picks the Niners received from Chicago in the Trubisky trade, and he is their leading tackler. Safety Jaquiski Tartt has been San Francisco’s leader in the secondary with Ward out, but he’ll be out Sunday, too, with a shoulder injury.

This basically is the Giants game all over again. These guys shouldn’t be able to play with Chicago, but if the Bears doesn’t take them seriously, they’ll come limping home with their fifth loss of the season.

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