The Bears (3-4) will look to snap a two-game losing streak Sunday when they host the 49ers (2-4) at Soldier Field. Here are four storylines to watch in the contest:
(1) How will the Bears fare with Chris Tabor assuming head-coaching duties from Matt Nagy?
The Bears announced Saturday that Nagy remains in COVID-19 protocol after testing positive Monday and will not coach Sunday's game against the 49ers. Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, who conducted practices this week at Halas Hall, will assume head-coaching duties for the contest.
The Bears worked throughout the week on a contingency plan in case Nagy would have to miss the game. Tabor was chosen as acting head coach so that offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and defensive coordinator Sean Desai could continue to focus on their respective sides of the ball. As special teams coordinator, Tabor interacts with players on offense and defense on a daily basis.
During the week, players expressed confidence in Tabor's ability to operate the team in Nagy's absence. Said veteran linebacker Alec Ogletree, who's in his first season with the Bears: "I've gotten to know him really well since I've been here; I've been playing some special teams and I've been in the meetings with him. I think he's handling this situation really well. I'm glad he's able to step in for us and help us in a time of need and be that guy for us."
(2) Will the Bears show improvement on offense, especially in the passing game?
The Bears ground game has been highly productive this season, ranking sixth in the NFL with a robust average of 131.0 yards per game. It has been particularly effective of late, generating its top four performances of the year in the last four games with 188, 143, 140 and 143 yards.
Unfortunately, a successful running game has not helped the Bears get into the end zone. They entered Week 8 ranked 30th in the league in scoring, averaging just 14.4 points per game. The main culprit has been a stalled passing attack that ranks last in the NFL in both yards per game (124.4) and sacks allowed (26) and has yet to record a 200-yard outing this season.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was candid this week when he said: "We've got to be better in almost every single aspect of the passing game: our details in pass protection, our details in route running, our details in the decision-making and the throwing at quarterback, and then putting it all together."
Rookie quarterback Justin Fields, who will make his sixth straight start Sunday, is confident a breakthrough performance is imminent, saying this week: "I think we're close to having a breakout game. All we need to do is put the little plays together, put all of our positive plays together and come up with multiple TD-scoring drives … You just feel it. It's coming."
(3) How will the defense fare without star outside linebacker Khalil Mack?
The six-time Pro Bowler will miss Sunday's game with a lingering foot injury he sustained during a Week 3 loss in Cleveland. The last time the Bears played without Mack—Nov. 4, 2018 in Buffalo—his defensive teammates stepped up and returned two of four takeaways for touchdowns and registered four sacks in a 41-9 rout of the Bills.
While counting on a repeat performance against the 49ers is unrealistic, the defense should benefit from the expected return of outside linebacker Robert Quinn and tackle Akiem Hicks. Both players missed last Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers. Quinn was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list Friday, while Hicks was a full participant in practice after being limited Wednesday and Thursday due to a groin injury.
A usually stingy Bears run defense needs to improve Sunday after allowing 154 and 182 yards rushing the past two weeks in losses to the Packers and Buccaneers, respectively.
"Stopping the run is all mentality, man," Hicks said. "You've got to want it more than that guy does. We've had some performances over the years where we've played some of the top running backs in the league at the time or in the course of that year and we obliterated them. We've taken them down. It's something that we stand on or should stand on on any football team, is shutting down the run. So I would say this: You've got to have that want-to to step out there Sunday and be willing to impose your will."
(4) How will the Bears respond following last Sunday's blowout loss in Tampa?
The 38-3 defeat was their most lopsided loss since 2014, but recent Bears teams have consistently rebounded from one-sided setbacks. In games immediately following losses of at least 20 points under Nagy, the Bears are 3-0. In 2019, they rebounded from a 26-3 setback to the Chiefs with a 21-19 victory over the Vikings. This year, they bounced back from a 34-14 defeat to the Rams to beat the Bengals 20-17 and followed a 26-6 loss to the Browns with a 24-14 victory over the Lions.
"There have been tough situations on our team in the past," Hicks said, "and I think that we've shown resiliency and a willingness to fight through those types of situations, and hopefully we come out on the right end of this one. But the only option that we have is to go out and play and find out. Once we step on that field and let it fly, we'll have those answers."
The 49ers have also experienced some adversity of late, losing four straight games following a 2-0 start. The strength of their team is their defense, which ranks sixth in the NFL in total yards (324.0 per game) and fifth in passing yards (205.0), but the unit has recorded only one interception so far this season.