Then 49ers will arrive at Soldier Field facing perhaps their biggest test thus far in 2001. That’s certainly true for the 49ers offense: the Bears have been surrendering 8.6 points per game and have a front seven that is as tough to run on as any team in the league.

But aren’t these the same Bears we whipped 17-0 last year? Hardly.

While no juggernaut, the Bears are starting to gain some momentum here with some fresh faces. Jim Miller has easily been the most effective quarterback for the Bears. He always looks pretty comfortable running the offense, usually plays within himself, and has success going deep when he wants to. He is still not a QB who will carry you, but he has won his team over and they seem to play well with him. In his only start last year, he defeated the Colts before a hamstring injury ended his season, making him 5-0 as the Bears starting quarterback the last two years (he did not play in the Bears’ season-opening loss to the Ravens).

The running game is gaining momentum, and Anthony Thomas’ 188 yards rushing against Cincinnati could be the sign of things to come. Thomas, a rookie from Michigan, has been splitting time with incumbent James Allen but is clearly the superior back, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Thomas is mature beyond his years and does everything well, and he can hit the hole quickly. Thomas’ 46-yard run was longer than any run Allen had last year, when he averaged a pedestrian 3.8 yards per carry. The Bears like Allen’s toughness and have been generous with his paying time, but I have to think that Thomas will be in the backfield for at least 75% of the Bears plays on Sunday. The line is big unit that is best run blocking.

The passing game took a major blow when the lost Marcus Robinson for the year vs. the Bengals. Surprisingly, Bears coach Dick Jauron announced that instead of elevating slot wideout David Terrell to #2, he will use his #4  wideout Dez White as the starter opposite Marty Booker. Terrell had his first big game as a pro vs. the Bengals with 7 catches for 91 yards, but Jauron wants Terrell to remain the #3 slot receiver to take advantage of mismatches with nickel corners. I would think, then, that we will see a lot of 3-receiver sets from the Bears this weekend to attack nickel corner Anthony Parker. Terrell is a big (6-3, 213) receiver with speed and All-Pro ability, but he is still learning. The Bears will be looking his way when he lines up opposite Parker. Dez White is also a big guy (6-0, 214) but has had a lot of drops this year and I’m not sure how confident Miller is with him. Booker is the veteran and the best wideout right now (30 catches, 330 yards, 3 TDs). The Bears do not utilize their tight ends much in the passing game.

Very, very tough. The Bears are a Pro Bowl cornerback away from being a Baltimore caliber defense. While most teams have opted for undersized lineman, Chicago is very old school with their front four. Three of their starting four are over 300 pounds, and the exception is end Phillip Daniels (4 sacks) who weighs 290. I don’t know if any NFL team starts two ends who are 290 and 300 (Bryan Robinson). They are massive and very tough to run on. The Bears have surrendered 76 rushing yards a game, good for #2 in the NFL. The front four basically keeps all the blockers off the linebacking crew, which features the best linebacker outside of Baltimore, Brian Urlacher. Urlacher (27 tackles, 2 sacks, FF, int, 3 passes defensed) is a big linebacker with safety speed that can blanket receivers in coverage and is lethal on blitzes. He must be accounted for on every down. Both outside backers, Roosevelt Colvin (25 tackles) and Warrick Holdman (28 tackles), are good players who are playing great. Colvin is also a pass rushing threat and has 2.5 sacks on the year.

The corners are the weak link, and teams can pass on the Bears. For all the talk about R.W. McQuarters, Walt Harris is the best cover guy on the team. R Dub leads the team in tackles and pass break-ups because teams throw at him and not Harris. Harris would be a great #2 guy; however, he is not a #1 corner and Owens caught most of his 20 passes last year against Harris. The safeties are much better, with Mike Brown quickly developing into a young leader on defense. He is very smart and calls most of the coverages. The linebackers, led by Urlacher, can cover the short middle very well.

Keys to Game:

1. Get off to a fast start
Jim Miller has played great but he has also never played from behind much. Getting a lead early would put the Bears in unknown territory. Mariucci has been adamant about sticking with his 'run early, run often’ approach, but that will be hard to do vs. Chicago. The 49ers have matchup advantages in the passing game, and by coming out throwing they can put the Bears in a hole and force them to do something they haven’t had to do yet: come from behind. Twenty points could be enough to beat Chicago.

2. Throw to Terrell Owens Early
This goes hand-in-hand with Key #1. The Bears do not have anybody who can cover Terrell Owens. Get him the ball early, and get it to him a lot. He will make plays. They may also want to get Tai Streets in more, as he can beat either McQuarters or nickel corner Jerry Azumah. Stokes still can’t beat anybody.

3. Account for Urlacher
The Bears have lots of good players on defense, but Urlacher is their super star. He will kill you if you don’t account for him. Garcia should watch himself on scrambles, too, because Urlacher is one linebacker Garcia will not outrun.

4. Cover David Terrell with Plummer or Webster
By keeping Terrell in the slot, Jauron may be trying to go after the 49ers nickel corner, Anthony Parker, with more three wideout sets. If the Bears do this, they would be using the unreliable Dez White (just 17 career catches) as the wideout replacing Marcus Robinson. The better matchup for the 49ers would be to slide Plummer into the slot to cover Terrell whenever the Bears go with 3 receivers and use Parker on White outside. Let’s make Dez White beat us.

5. Stop the Run
The running game sets everything up for the Bears. If the Bears don’t move the football on the ground, I don’t think their passing game can carry them.