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Vikings 24. 49ers 16. What We Learned

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings started the season off right with a win over the 49ers at home, in a game that was never too much in doubt. The opening game for the 2018-19 regular season offered the first real glimpse of where the Vikings are at as they start their campaign to hoist the Lombardi trophy at the end of Super Bowl 53.

Here are some things we learned.

DEFENSE STILL STOUT - AND GENERATING TURNOVERS

The #1 defense from last season seemed to pick up where they left off against the 49ers, limiting them to 16 points, allowing them to convert only 25% of their red zone opportunities and nearly the same % of 3rd down conversions (the 49ers went 5/13 on third down).

The big difference in this game from last season were the turnovers generated. The Vikings defense opened the season with four takeaways - three interceptions and a forced fumble recovery. Those turnovers were critical in the Vikings victory, coming at key times during the game. Mike Hughes, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith had the interceptions, and Linval Joseph forced the fumble at the Vikings’ 2-yard line to end a long 49ers drive.

Rhodes was targeted only once all day - and he caught that one. That is the definition of a shutdown corner.

OFFENSE GOOD AT TIMES, BUT INCONSISTENT

The Vikings offense managed to score just 17 points, which without Hughes’ pick six is too close for comfort. The game started well for Kirk Cousins and the offense, with Cousins hitting Dalvin Cook out of the backfield several times for nice gains, and Stefon Diggs on a perfect TD pass. Cousins had another perfect TD pass to Kyle Rudolph in the 3rd quarter to convert the Vikings’ only real red zone opportunity (the Vikings were in the red zone to close-out the game, but that didn’t really count).

But outside of that, the Vikings’ offense often stalled. The biggest culprits were dropped passes - Thielen, Treadwell and CJ Ham all had one - and poor blocking upfront for Dalvin Cook. Even Cook’s better runs were almost all yards after contact as he seldom had his runs blocked for him. A few of the short or no gain runs seemed a little predictable too, which didn’t help. Latavius Murray had the better game on the ground, but still the running game was often anemic.

KIRK COUSINS SOLID IN HIS DEBUT AS A VIKING

It was a solid start to Kirk Cousins’ career as a Viking. He went 20/36 (55.5%) for 244 yards, 2 TDs and no picks. His adjusted completion % (not including drops or throw-always) was 69.7%. He ended the game with a 95.1 passer rating, and 6.85 adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A). He also rushed four times for 26 yards. For the most part he did alright under pressure, converted his only red zone opportunity, and went 7/17 (41%) on third down. He was hampered by an uncharacteristic handful of dropped passes by Vikings’ receivers, missed on a couple would-be TD passes to Thielen and Diggs, had one turnover-worthy pass, and was sacked three times for 17 yards.

Overall, he managed the game well, avoiding negative plays for the most part, taking what the 49ers defense gave him, and making a few nice plays with his arm, feet, and even his hard count to draw a key neutral zone infraction to effectively convert a 4th down. His passer rating was notably better on deeper throws - 10+ yards - and throws behind the line of scrimmage- than short throws between 0-10 yards.

DALVIN COOK STILL LOOKS EVERY BIT THE PLAYMAKER IN HIS RETURN

While Cook didn’t do much in the run game due to poor blocking and some predictable play calling, he did manufacture some rush yards when nothing was blocked for him and really shined as a receiver- getting around the corner consistently on several flat routes. He did have a fumble on an extended run that he was turning into a big play from nothing initially. He needs to focus more on ball security in those situations, but nevertheless showed his big play ability that can show up anytime he’s got the ball in his hands.

Overall Cook had six targets and six receptions for 55 yards (9.2 avg) - all of that and more came via yards after the catch (YAC). He added 40 yards (all of which came after contact) on 16 carries (2.5 avg) for a total of 95 all-purpose yards. His passer rating when targeted was second only to Stefon Diggs’. He led the offense in both YAC as a receiver, and yards after contact as a runner. He led the league in tackles avoided with 10.

All that is needed for more production from Cook is better blocking up front and more targets as a receiver.

SHELDON RICHARDSON ALSO SOLID IN HIS DEBUT

Richardson led a pretty stout Vikings defensive front with seven pressures (5 hurries and two hits), three tackles and three assists. He led the league in pass rush productivity according to PFF. His only demerit was a violation of the Aaron Rodgers rule, for sacking Jimmy G and landing on him with his body weight. He was probably helped by the injuries at guard suffered by the 49ers, but nevertheless was a strong presence inside throughout the game.

The defensive line was pretty stout overall, generating three sacks, four TFLs, and a key forced fumble. Everyone participated and Danielle Hunter looked strong, with a sack, two TFLs, and four solo tackles. Pro Football Focus had this to say about Richardson’s performance:

The Vikings signed defensive interior Sheldon Richardson this offseason, and it paid off immediately. Richardson was downright unblockable in this game, constantly disrupting the 49ers’ offensive plans. He didn’t register a sack, but the way he was effortlessly throwing the 49ers’ guards out of his way and getting in Garoppolo’s face had a major impact on the passing game. He also constantly ruined rushing holes that the 49ers were trying to set up, forcing their backs to try to make something out of nothing (and usually failing to).

Linval Joesph was the highest graded on the DL, with two hurries, five tackles including four stops, and a key forced fumble. I suspect Joesph may be a beneficiary of having a stronger presence next to him inside as the season goes on.

Richardson could have a big impact next week at Green Bay, especially if Aaron Rodgers remains immobile due to his knee injury.

MIKE HUGHES ALSO DID WELL IN HIS DEBUT PERFORMANCE AS A ROOKIE

Having a pick-six to start your pro career is a great way to begin, but Hughes was also solid in coverage and was called on to replace Trae Waynes about mid-way through the game after Waynes left with a knee injury. He gave up a few plays, but generally fared pretty well in his first NFL game. He allowed only a 45.1 passer rating in his coverage, with the INT and two pass break ups, but also allowed three receptions for 59 yards.

STILL PLENTY TO CLEAN UP

While the Vikings secondary had three interceptions, there was also some blown assignments that led to big plays for the 49ers. Ben Gedeon got caught looking in the backfield, leading to a big completion to the 49ers fullback. Harrison Smith did the same on the touchdown pass to Dante Pettis. There was also a long stretch were nobody (Kendricks particularly) seemed to cover the 49ers tight end, leading to several big gains. Trae Waynes was disappointing after improving quite a bit over the season last year - before leaving the game with a knee injury.

Offensively, the Vikings receivers had several dropped passes - a couple by CJ Ham, and a couple key drops by Adam Thielen and Laquon Treadwell. Beyond that, the Vikings offensive line really failed to do much run blocking outside of a handful of runs by Latavius Murray. They certainly did Dalvin Cook no favors, leaving him without a hole just about every time. Credit Cook for making something out of nothing on several carries.

SPECIAL TEAMS ARE OKAY

After a disappointing preseason and many new faces on special teams, how well they would perform in the opening game was more of a question mark. As it turned out, special teams was fairly uneventful- which was a good thing.

Carlson made his kicks, and Wile made most of his punts (he had one bad one), and the return and coverage teams were pretty mistake-free and even had a couple notable good plays downing punts deep.

JOHN DEFILIPPO DID WELL TOO

Apart from a few predictable run calls to Dalvin Cook, I thought DeFilippo called a pretty good game in his debut as offensive coordinator. The offense started off strong, but later stalled mostly due to poor execution rather than poor play calling. I suspect he didn’t show too much of what he has installed yet, but there wasn’t a need based on how the game unfolded.

OFFENSIVE LINE FARED... OKAY... BUT RUN BLOCKING NEEDS IMPROVEMENT

Looking at the Vikings offensive line grades from PFF, there were a couple surprises that stood out. The first is that Tom Compton at left guard was the highest graded lineman- and highest graded player on offense- getting good grades in both run and pass blocking - despite giving up the only sack PFF counted.

The other surprise was that Mike Remmers was the worst graded lineman, primarily due to his poor run blocking grade. Brett Jones was similar in that regard - poor run blocking grade but very good (best in fact) pass protection grade. I suspect DeForest Buckner contributed to the poor run blocking grades for both Remmers and Jones.

Riley Reiff was very solid, giving up only one hurry and also faring well as a run blocker. Rashod Hill was ok, yielding three hurries and mediocre as a run blocker.

Overall the pass blocking grades were pretty good across the board- led by Jones, Reiff and Compton- but the run grades outside of Compton and Reiff left a lot to be desired. It will be interesting to see what happens when Pat Elflein returns, as Brett Jones has done well as a pass blocker - and Compton surpringly too so far in both pass protection and run blocking.

Lots of possibilities.

BOTTOM LINE

The Vikings beat the 49ers pretty much as expected in their home opener, but there is also a sense that improvement is needed to beat better opponents - mostly in execution on offense.

But for a first game of the regular season, the Vikings looked pretty good - and better than all of their top NFC contenders that have played already- Packers, Eagles, Saints and Falcons. The Vikings now have the best odds to win the Super Bowl of any NFC team (8-1), and are second only to the Patriots at 6-1.

On to Green Bay.