The San Francisco 49ers travel to Chicago to open their 2022 campaign at Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon when they take on the Bears. Sunday will mark the 69th meeting between the two teams, with San Francisco holding a 35-32-1 lead in the series.
San Francisco and Chicago last met on opening weekend in 2003. The 49ers 49-7 blowout would be the highlight of Dennis Erickson’s short tenure as head coach.
For the second season in a row, the 49ers will open the season against an opponent with a new coaching staff.
Matt Eberflus replaces Matt Nagy as the head coach in Chicago. Eberflus and Kyle Shanahan have faced off twice during the latter’s time in San Francisco and won both times. Eberflus’ defenses held the 49ers to a total of 28 points for the two games, 10 with the Cowboys in 2017 and 18 last season with Indianapolis.
With that as a backdrop, let’s look at the five burning questions that will likely determine the outcome on Sunday:
1.) Can Trey Lance manage the game?
Trey Lance was up and down in his first training camp and preseason as the 49ers starting quarterback.
Ups and downs are to be expected with a young quarterback. For the 49ers to beat Chicago, Lance must show the ability to manage the game.
While Lance will be off on some throws, he needs to limit the turnovers.
“You’re going to be off on some throws, but you can still win games when you’re off on throws,” said Kyle Shanahan during training camp. “You can’t win games when you turn the ball over, and it was mainly the turnovers.”
In addition to limiting turnovers, Lance must find a way to get in a rhythm and move the chains.
With Lance on the field last season, the 49ers offense converted only 29% of its third downs. San Francisco needs to improve on that nine of 31 total to keep the defense off the field and win games.
Lance is unlikely to have George Kittle on Sunday. The tight end injured his groin on Monday and his status for the game is questionable.
2.) Will the 49ers defense be able to contain Justin Fields?
The 49ers defense has a history of struggling to contain mobile quarterbacks.
Justin Fields gave San Francisco’s defense fits with his legs in their matchup last season. Fields ran for 103 yards on ten carries, including a highlight reel 22-yard touchdown run.
“He’s a super athlete, so we just need to keep him inside and do whatever we can,” said rookie Drake Jackson when asked how the 49ers can stop Fields.
For the San Francisco defense, doing whatever they can starts with being disciplined enough to stay in their pass rush lanes. Depending on the play call, every rusher has a landmark on the quarterback. They must stick with their assignment instead of jumping into a gap that may open an escape lane. Easier said than done.
3.) Can the 49ers defense stop the run?
The 49ers defense struggled to stop the run during the early portion of last season. Over the first eight games, San Francisco allowed opponents to rush for over 100 yards seven times.
Chicago rushed for 176 yards against the 49ers last year, the highest in that span.
Unlike last year, the Bears will have their leading rusher David Montgomery available on Sunday.
Montgomery and Khalil Herbert will test a San Francisco run defense which will be without D.J. Jones to anchor the middle.
Former first-round pick Javon Kinlaw steps in to replace Jones. He will need to control the offensive lineman to allow the 49ers linebackers room to flow to the ball.
Joining Kinlaw in the middle is Arik Armstead. Armstead started last season at defensive end, and his move to the interior of the 49ers defense coincided with their turnaround.
Behind the defensive line, Fred Warner, Azeez Al-Shaair, and Dre Greenlaw struggled with their run fits early in 2021. The struggles were especially evident in the first few weeks of the season. The best linebacker trio in the game will have their work cut out on Sunday.
4.) How will the new faces in secondary hold up?
Jimmie Ward played nearly every snap during his 16 starts in 2021 but will miss at least the first four games due to a hamstring injury.
The one game Ward missed last year, against Arizona at Levi’s Stadium, was one of the 49ers worst defensive performances during Kyle Shanahan’s tenure.
Ward is an underappreciated piece of the 49ers defense. Although he doesn’t make many spectacular plays, Ward does an excellent job of keeping everything in front of him.
San Francisco will wait until game time to announce which safety will start opposite Talanoa Hufanga, and George Odum is the most likely candidate to replace Ward.
Odom had a couple of missed tackles early in the final preseason game against Houston that led to long plays.
On the outside will be Emmanuel Moseley and free agent acquisition Charvarius Ward. The duo was solid throughout training camp, making life miserable for the offense.
The other new face in the secondary will be Samuel Womack. The rookie fifth-round draft pick will replace K’Waun Williams in the slot. Womack exploded onto the scene with a pair of interceptions in his preseason debut. He is an upgrade in coverage, but it remains to be seen how he will hold up against the run.
5.) Can the new offensive line hold up?
Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey return to bookend a revamped 49ers offensive line with three new faces in the middle.
Spencer Burford and Aaron Banks will start at the guard spots while Jake Brendel replaces Alex Mack at the center position.
The trio has a total of three NFL starts to their credit, all three belonging to Brendel. Those three starts came all the way back in 2018 when Brendel was a member of the Miami Dolphins.
Chris Foerster was asked on Thursday how he would categorize the development of the interior offensive linemen.
“I’d say of the three interior players, Aaron (Banks) and Spencer (Burford) have been a little more up and down,” responded the 49ers offensive line coach.
Kyle Shanahan has shown the ability to scheme around offensive linemen in the past. In 2019, the 49ers reached the Super Bowl with Ben Garland filling in at center after Weston Richburg was lost for the season in week 14. Earlier that season, San Francisco went 8-1 with Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill filling in at left tackle for an injured Joe Staley.
In 2020, San Francisco had to go through the entire season with musical chairs at the center position and right guard due to Weston Richburg’s inability to return from injury. Despite the injuries and the constant rotation at center and guard, San Francisco had a squad capable of reaching the playoffs but was held back by poor quarterback play.
We saw it last year as well. Tom Compton, a journeyman, took over at right tackle after the injury to McGlinchey, and the team had to start Colton McKivitz in place of Trent Williams in a must-win week 18 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Prediction: 49ers 17 Bears 13
This game feels like it is going to be closer than expected. As was the case last season, the 49ers offense struggled to find much of a rhythm with Trey Lance throughout training camp.
In Lance’s two starts last year, at Arizona and home against Houston, the 49ers offense was held to a total of only 20 points through the first seven quarters.
Look for the 49ers to pull out a tight win to open their season 1-0 for the second consecutive year.