The Vikings go into Levi’s stadium on Saturday as 7 point underdogs against the 1st seeded 49ers. They will be traveling after a short week of practice for the Saturday afternoon Divisional Round playoff game.
Meanwhile, the 49ers are coming off their bye-week, presumably rested and recuperated, and will have a number of players back from injury.
Once again, despite the upset over the 8 point favorite Saints on the road on Sunday, not many are picking the Vikings to upset the 49ers on Saturday.
There aren’t nearly as many saying Kirk Cousins can’t get it done as there were last week. This week it’s just that the 49ers are the better team. Not a lot of elaboration beyond that, but clearly the 49ers are a very good team that’s beaten all the playoff teams they’ve faced in the NFC (1-1 against the Seahawks), and played the Ravens very close as well.
But looking back at the 49ers schedule, 3 months of largely blow-outs from September to November gave way to five straight games decided on the last play of the game, and a 3-2 record in December against five good teams (even Atlanta was playing well then as the 49ers discovered). That looks a lot like the Patriots schedule. Both teams went 8-0 against poor or struggling teams, then faced a more difficult schedule later.
And as the Saints discovered, it doesn’t matter if you are a 7- or 8-point favorite, all the pundits pick you to win, you went 13-3, won your division, and are well represented in the Pro Bowl when the first whistle blows in a playoff game. What matters is how well you play against the other team, how well you’ve prepared, game planned, and finally execute on the field.
So, let’s take a look at what the Vikings could do to help them come away with another upset victory on Saturday against the 49ers.
When the Vikings have the ball, they will be up against the best passing defense in terms of net yards per passing attempt allowed (4.8), and total passing yards per game allowed (169.2).
They will also be up against the 23rd ranked defense in rushing yards allowed per carry (4.5), and 17th in rushing yards allowed per game (112.6).
The 49er run defense doesn’t seem that formidable based on those stats, having given up over 100 yards rushing in 12 of their 16 games this season. That’s an important stat for the Vikings to take advantage of, as they’ve only lost one game (with starters playing) in the past four years when they’ve rushed for over 100 yards.
But before moving on with that, let’s talk about the 49ers pass defense. One of the reasons the 49ers were so good against the pass is they didn’t allow many big passing plays, and in general are very good in coverage. Their PFF coverage grade for the season was 92.5 - 2nd overall (Vikings were 3rd at 91.5).
However, against play-action passes, the 49er pass defense hasn’t been as good. In fact, according to Bill Barnwell over at espn.com, the 49ers rank 24th in the league against play-action passes, with a 112.9 passer rating. This compares to a 66.6 passer rating against passes without play-action.
Overall, the 49ers have allowed an 83 passer rating against for the season. But that’s gone up to 100 over the past five games. Some of the decline in the 49er offense may be due to injury, but also because they’ve been playing better teams the past five games.
Lastly, here is one more interesting tidbit: In 5 the past 8 games, the highest PFF graded player on the offense opposing the 49ers was the tight-end. The average grade was 88.9, which is an elite or near-elite grade.
Knowing all this suggests a plan of attack for the Vikings offense.
Luckily it involves everything the Vikings offense has been learning, implementing and executing since OTAs last spring, and what suits them as players the best.
The two key elements of course are the running game and the play-action pass. Which to establish first may well depend on how the 49ers look to defend the Vikings initially.
The 49ers typically use a four-man front, sometimes with a wide-9 formation, don’t blitz much, and run variations of Cover-3 zone in their secondary (31% of the time), along with Cover-4, often disguised as Cover-3 pre-snap (17% of the time), along with man coverage variations in run situations. Here is a very good article detailing the 49er defense. Here is a good piece on the 49ers use of Cover-4.
I would expect the 49ers to run either Cover-3 and Cover-4 in passing situations, depending on down/distance and field position, and mostly man coverage outside with single high or Cover-2 safeties on running downs.
Denver ran a lot of Cover-3 and outside man coverage against the Vikings back in week 11 (without Adam Thielen), and were very successful with it in the first half, when they went mostly with man coverage outside. The Broncos are a good tackling team, and did a good job minimizing both YAC and rush yards with very good tackling on the perimeter and inside. It wasn’t the best early performance by the Vikings, who struggled early with play-calling to beat this scheme.
In the 2nd quarter, however, the Vikings started to break-through the Broncos’ man-coverage defense by targeting Kyle Rudolph, having had limited success with out and flat routes - because of good coverage and tackling. But targeting Rudolph over the middle was effective in moving the ball down the field just prior to halftime.
In the second half, up 20 points, the Broncos switched back to their Cover-3 zone to prevent the deep ball while letting Von Miller and company loose up front. It didn’t work so well. The Vikings, and Stefon Diggs in particular, were able to beat the Broncos Cover-3 on a deep ball, and then Cousins targeted TE Irv Smith Jr. for the touchdown.
The following drive the Vikings were successful driving the field against the Broncos’ Cover-3 with a lot of bread and butter throws over the middle - to tight-ends and Diggs - along with a couple modest runs of 5 yards or so. No big plays, but another TD.
The next drive Cousins rolled out and Diggs beat Chris Harris in Cover-3 on a post route for a 54 yard TD.
On the next drive, the Broncos went back to man coverage outside initially, but the Vikings countered with a screen to Cook for 21 yards. The Broncos went back to Cover-3 after that, and the Vikings countered with this play:
#49ers played Cover 3 on 31% of opponent dropbacks this season (4th most in the league).— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 9, 2020
Look for the #Vikings to target 3-deep with boot play-action. Clear the CB/FS & create a void for the crosser.
Here’s a piece we did on the boot pass out of 12 personnel. @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/EwnwedY4Tw
My point in detailing the Broncos’ game is that while the Vikings struggled early to figure out how to counter the Broncos defense (which is similar to the 49ers) early, they figured it out by first attacking linebackers in coverage by targeting tight-ends when they went man coverage with 8 in the box, then finding ways to beat Cover-3 - without Adam Thielen and Josh Kline at RG.
The Vikings may have more success running the ball against the 49ers than they did against the Broncos, as the 49ers don’t have as good a run and tackling defense. Adding in the play-action passing and targeting TEs and other receivers over the middle against linebackers in coverage may help move the chains while also opening up other routes on occasion too.
The Broncos were one of the better tackling defenses in the league (6th highest PFF tackling grade), and also the top ranked run defense in the league by PFF grade at 91.2. The 49ers rank only 23rd in their PFF tackling grade as a defense - only 49.1 - and are 11th overall in run defense grade at 73.8, and 23rd in rushing yards per attempt allowed (4.5).
Those stats leave room for opportunity in the Vikings running game, and yards after the catch.
The Vikings have a variety of run plays at their disposal, the key will be to break from tendency, but also look for match-up advantages in the run game. The 49ers give up more on a yards per carry basis on outside runs, which fits the Vikings offense well, off right-tackle, and right up the middle. The 49er linebackers are not particularly good in run defense, nor are they particularly good tacklers, so getting outside, whether basic outside zone, pitches, WR/TE jet sweeps, will be advantageous for the Vikings, particularly as the Vikings’ wide receivers are also good blockers.
If the Vikings are successful in attacking the 49er linebackers running to the boundary and with backs on flat routes, while also targeting receivers (particularly TEs) over the middle on play-action, that will likely open up opportunities down the field at some point as the 49er defense focuses more on defending the short and intermediate part of the field.
But defending play-action passes, covering tight-ends, and run defense are the weaker aspects of the 49er defense, so that’s where the Vikings offensive attack should focus initially. Taking shots down the field, whenever the opportunity presents itself, is an important compliment to the rest of the game plan.
That run/play-action/TE offense should also be equally effective in the red zone, where the 49ers defense has struggled. The 49ers have allowed a 60% red zone TD conversion rate on the season (22nd), and 90% over the past three games. The Vikings have converted in the red zone 60.7% of the time this season (10th).
The 49ers have only two players in their LB/DB group that are 6’3”- CB Richard Sherman and LB Fred Warner. Everyone else is 6’1” or shorter, and all are 235 lbs. or lighter. Kyle Rudolph is 6’6”, 265 lbs. If Cousins throws it to where only Rudolph can reach it, pretty tough for any 49er to defend.
Converting in the red zone will likely be a key factor in the outcome of the game.
The 49ers on offense are going to want to do everything the Vikings want to do on offense: run the ball, get it to their tight-end, and take advantage of big play opportunities. They use more shotgun than the Vikings, but between Garoppolo and their receivers, they’re not so focused on the deep ball. They prefer the short- to intermediate passing game and generating YAC off of those plays to the long ball. The 49er offensive line is very similar to the Vikings, and with the same strengths and weaknesses - tackles are better than the interior linemen. There was only a 1% difference in pass blocking efficiency between the two offensive lines this season.
But 49er QB Jimmy Garoppolo is more effected by pressure than Kirk Cousins. He gets the ball out quicker too. He doesn’t have as high a ‘big-time throw’ percentage as Cousins, but he does have a higher ‘turnover worthy’ throw percentage. He’s also more negatively effected by blitzes than Cousins.
So, getting pressure on Garoppolo, and getting him off his spot, should be a point of emphasis for the Vikings defense.
But the only way they’ll have that opportunity is by stopping the 49ers’ run game first. If the 49ers are effective on first and second down, Garoppolo can continue with a quick passing game that gives little opportunity for pressure.
Besides the defensive line, the Vikings will need guys like Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith, Trae Waynes, Andrew Sendejo, Eric Wilson and Xavier Rhodes to be solid in run defense on the perimeter, where the 49ers like to run.
Overall, the Vikings have about the same run defense grade as the 49ers, but are much better tacklers, so hopefully that will limit rush yardage as well as YAC.
If the Vikings are able to get some run stops occasionally, that will allow Mike Zimmer some better opportunities to blitz, pressure, and/or confuse Garoppolo in the passing game. It’s not just about sacks, but also coverage, pressure, creating some confusion - and occasionally some unforced errors. Here are Jimmy G’s INTs this season, along with the ones against the Vikings last season:
As you can see, most of Garoppolo’s interceptions came with little or no pressure. And while you can’t blame him 100% for all of these, you can give him some of the blame for just about all of them. There is the occasional just not seeing the defender he threw it right to, which were all his fault, but also several other inaccurate passes that resulted in interceptions. They were inaccurate, but not uncatchable, so there is some blame for his receivers, but they were inaccurate enough where half the blame is on Jimmy G for making a bad throw. And lastly there are a couple bad decisions - throwing into good coverage.
Garoppolo had 13 interceptions on the season, and also five lost fumbles. So, between the interceptions and fumbles, that’s a little over a turnover a game. The Vikings may need to win the turnover battle with the 49ers, or at least not lose it, to win the game, so having Jimmy G provide a little giveaway help could make a difference - just as it did last week with Brees in New Orleans - and Jimmy G’s last meeting against the Vikings.
The Vikings starting defense has averaged about 3 turnovers a game over the past five games, and maintaining that rate would be huge on Saturday against the 49ers.
But beyond turnovers and a good run defense, the Vikings will also need to be effective in coverage and with their pass rush.
Most of the Vikings sacks this season, like the 49ers’, have come with the help of good coverage. Few sacks for either team happen inside of 2.5 seconds, which is the average time to throw for a quarterback in the NFL. So, let’s start with coverage.
The Vikings will likely use a lot of split safety looks - Cover-2, Cover-4, Cover-6 - along with some single-high safety looks and man coverage too. But a big key in pass defense will be limiting George Kittle, their All-Pro tight end. He’s very good, competitive, and fights for every last yard. The Michael Thomas of the 49ers offense and their best player. He had 90 yards receiving against the Vikings last season, but the 49ers still lost, so it’s not essential to shut him down completely to win, but he’s the guy the Vikings will want to minimize in the 49er offense.
I expect Harrison Smith will be covering Kittle quite a bit during the game, but Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Andrew Sendejo may be tasked with him at times as well. If between them they can tackle well and limit his YAC, and make throws to him difficult, that should go a long way toward limiting his production. Smith and Kendricks are two of the Vikings best cover guys, and throughout the season the Vikings have been the stingiest defense where tight-ends are concerned, so this match-up, while the biggest challenge at TE for the Vikings, is also a strength of the Vikings defense.
The Vikings may also use Cover-4 to limit the crossing routes the 49ers use, and with some good play could surprise Garoppolo like Anthony Harris did here with Aaron Rodgers:
Good coverage, plays like that one, and the fact that he threw 3 picks against the Vikings last time - including a pick 6 - may cause Garoppolo to hold the ball just a bit longer on occasion, which would give the Vikings pass rush more opportunities.
The Vikings will also need to slow down the 49er receivers, Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders, and Kendrick Bourne - not to mention their running backs. Perhaps as much as anything, tackling well to limit YAC will be important. Making the 49ers work for every yard, every play could result in some stalled drives - failing to convert on a 3rd and 3 - that sort of thing.
Last week the Vikings moved Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter inside to exploit the Saints’ weaker interior line, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Mike Zimmer did that on occasion against the 49ers as well. I also would not be surprised if he dialed up some blitzes to pressure Garoppolo as well, whether of the A-gap variety, or more likely a DB off the edge. Danielle Hunter off the edge is also a threat, not just for a sack but also a turnover. He’s been pretty good at producing strip sacks of late, and hopefully he’ll get an another opportunity. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ifeadi Odenigbo more productive this week as well, now that he’s gotten over his hamstring injury.
The 49ers are one of the best offenses in the league on 3rd down, however, whereas the Vikings defense has slipped a bit this year in that area. That being the case, I don’t expect a lot of 3-and-outs for the 49er offense, which should have success given the weapons at their disposal.
The key for the Vikings defense will be in limiting the 49er big plays on offense, and particularly keeping them from converting in the red zone. Making field goals in the red zone aren’t likely to produce enough points to win this game, so which team makes the most of their red zone opportunities may well be the team that advances to the NFC Championship.
The 49ers have converted on 53.2% of their red zone opportunities this season, which ranks only 21st in the league. The Vikings defense ranks 2nd in preventing red zone TDs, allowing them only 43.8% of the time, so this is an area where the Vikings have an advantage.
This is likely to be a close game. Both offenses are similar, with a full array of weapons, and both defenses have been good in a lot of areas this season. Both teams are top 10 on both sides of the ball. Both are well coached, but I give the Vikings the advantage on the defensive side, with Zimmer having more experience, including playoff experience, and working with a unit where every starter has been in the system for several years.
The 49ers have home field advantage, but also the pressure and expectations of the favorite and first seed to deliver a victory. They will have some injured players back for this game, but how well they play in their first game back after missing several weeks remains to be seen. Jimmy Garoppolo has played in some big games, but QBs starting their first playoff game have a 6-17 record going back to 2013, including 1-2 this year.
For the Vikings, Kirk Cousins has less big game pressure on him after delivering against the Saints, which may have also given the whole team greater confidence coming into this game. The experience in Philadelphia two seasons ago may also serve the Vikings well going into their second playoff game after a big win - players and coaches alike. I’m sure Mike Zimmer learned some coaching lessons from that experience, along with players.
I suspect that experience may lead him to make quicker adjustments as needed, and also may have led him to throw in a few surprises not on tape for Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh to deal with over the course of the game.
Which quarterback will have the higher passer rating on Saturday?
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