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Vikings vs. 49ers: The Match-Up

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings advanced from the Wild Card Round to the NFC Divisional Round by upsetting the 13-3 Saints. They hope to advance to the NFC Championship by defeating the 13-3 49ers.

Once again they’re underdogs (7 points this time). Once again they’ll be playing on the road. And once again they’ll be playing against an NFC favorite to make it to the Super Bowl.

But let’s cut through the chatter and take a deeper look at the match-up.

The Match-Up

The 49ers finished the regular season 13-3, and earned the first seed in the NFC playoffs by virtue of tie-breakers over the Saints and Packers, having beaten them both. They also won the NFC West on the last play of week 17, holding on to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. They had lost to them earlier in the season, in Santa Clara, in overtime.

The 49ers are 7 point favorites at home.

Both teams are basically 50-50 run/pass offenses, using largely the same offensive scheme, and have top defenses on the other side of the ball. The 49ers talent on defense is concentrated more up-front, while the Vikings’ defensive talent is more spread out, with top players at every level.

The two teams haven’t met since week one of last season (Vikings won 24-16 at US Bank Stadium) in a game where Jimmy Garoppolo had 3 INTs. Both teams also had a lost fumble. The Vikings never trailed, and at one point in the 3rd quarter it was 24-6.

Tough to read much into that game, particularly from a game planning/adjustments standpoint, as it was week one of 2018, but in terms of execution, the Vikings’ OL held up pretty well against the 49ers defensive front, with Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, and the Vikings having Riley Reiff, Tom Compton, Brett Jones, Mike Remmers and Rashod Hill starting.

Both teams were able to move the ball down the field fairly well over the course of the game, but the Vikings based primarily on two factors:

  • The Vikings offense (or defense) was better in the red zone than the 49ers. However you want to attribute it, the Vikings were more successful converting in the red zone than the 49ers were.
  • Turnovers. The 49ers had 4 turnovers, the Vikings had only one.

There is some carry-over for those two factors to Saturday, as the Vikings have been much better this season in the red zone on both sides of the ball than the 49ers have been, and the Vikings have produced more takeaways than the 49ers, particularly in recent games.

This season, PFF’s ELO rankings have the Vikings at #7 and the 49ers at #6, so pretty evenly matched overall. Additionally, their individual player PFF grades on offense and defense, adjusted for opponents, rank the Vikings #3 on offense and the 49ers #10, while the Vikings rank #5 on defense and the 49ers #3.

COACHING

Once again, this is a match-up that includes head coaches who know each other. In this case, it’s Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak. Both run the same offensive scheme, and both have worked together in Houston back in the 2006-2009 years when Kubiak, who was a protege of Kyle’s old man Mike, hired him to be his wide receiver coach, and then QB coach, and then Offensive Coordinator. Kubiak also knows the 49ers defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, from his days in Houston where he gave him his start as an NFL coach.

Shanahan also worked with Kirk Cousins as offensive coordinator for the Redskins in 2012-13. He was also born in Minneapolis, when Mike Shanahan was briefly offensive coordinator for the Gophers.

This is Kyle Shanahan’s first rodeo in the playoffs as a head coach, but he was offensive coordinator in Atlanta for their Super Bowl run in 2016. It’s also the first playoff game for 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who is getting some head coaching interest.

Anyway, both teams have used the same offensive scheme to great success this year. The 49ers are the #2 offense in points scored, and the Vikings are #8.

Defensively, the Vikings rank 5th in points allowed, while the 49ers rank 8th.

In terms of overall team PFF grades, the 49ers are ranked 2nd in the league (93.2) (the Saints were first) while the Vikings were ranked 5th (91.9) for the regular season.

This is Kyle Shanahan’s 3rd season as a head coach, all with the 49ers, and his first winning season. He started with a shambles in 2017, but acquired a ton of talent in both the draft and free agency, but lost Jimmy G to injury early in 2018, which was fatal to their season.

He’ll be up against Mike Zimmer, who’s learned a thing or two from past playoff experiences, particularly how his team played after beating the Saints in 2017.

49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh will be coaching his first playoff game in that position.

At the same time, Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski will be in his second playoff game, but obviously has a bit of help from seasoned vets like Gary Kubiak to lean on for preparation and play-calling.

Overall, while both teams are well coached, the experience on the Vikings staff on both sides of the ball, particularly playoff experience, gives them a bit of an advantage.

QUARTERBACKS

Kirk Cousins has been better in all the major metrics for quarterbacks this season, but not by a lot. Except interception rate, where Cousins is top 10 with a 1.4% interception rate, while Garoppolo is well down the list at 2.7%.

Cousins’ passer rating is better when he’s kept clean, better when under pressure, and better when blitzed. He has a higher ‘big-time throw’ percentage than Garoppolo according to PFF, while Jimmy G has a higher ‘turnover-worthy’ throw percentage.

Given that Garoppolo threw 3 picks against Zimmer’s defense last time around, and the Vikings use more pre-snap disguises and multiple coverages, Garoppolo’s interception rate could come into play on Saturday, particularly as the Vikings defense has been generating more of those of late.

Another big difference between the two QBs is their deep passing rate. Jimmy Garoppolo threw the lowest percentage of deep passes (20+ yards) of any starting QB in the NFL this year. Only 6.5% or 31 all season. That’s less than half the rate that Cousins threw (13.7%).

Like the Saints and Drew Brees - who was 2nd lowest in deep passing rate - that could play into how the Vikings scheme on defense.

The other big difference between the two QBs is how they perform under pressure.

Garoppolo’s passer rating under pressure is 74.2 according to PFF, while Cousins’ is 87.6. Similarly, Jimmy G’s adjusted completion percentage drops to 68.6% under pressure, while Cousins’ is 73.3%. Lastly, rushers tend to get home more when Jimmy G is under pressure compared to Cousins. Jimmy G is sacked 22.9% of the time when under pressure, while Cousins is only sacked 16.4%. Additionally, Jimmy G has lost 5 fumbles this year, while Cousins has lost 3. That’s 18 total turnovers for Jimmy G this year- twice as many as Cousins.

Of the remaining QBs in the playoffs, Garoppolo generally has the worst stats. It’s also his first playoff game as a starting QB. Playing at home, as the favorite, creates a lot of pressure and expectations for him to deliver in his first playoff game. QBs starting their first playoff game have gone 6-17 since 2013, including 1-2 this year.

Kirk Cousins, having got the big game monkey off his back against the Saints, and playing again as the underdog, may be in a better place than Garoppolo in this game.

DEFENSE

Defensively the 49ers are known primarily for their defensive front, and this year the re-emergence of CB Richard Sherman, who was recently named 2nd Team All-Pro.

Up front, the 49ers are headlined by rookie DPOY favorite Nick Bosa. Bosa has been solid for the 49ers, but has trailed off in sack production as the year went on. He has 10 sacks on the season, but only 2 in the last 9 games. Arik Armstead, their other DE, is similar in that he has 11 sacks on the season, but none in the last five games. DeForest Buckner, their best DT, has 8 sacks on the season, but only 1 in the last four games.

In terms of pass defense, the 49ers have allowed the fewest passing yards in the league this year. They’ve allowed 200+ passing yards in just six games this season. But four of those were the last four games of the season.

Of course pass rush and pass coverage go hand-in-hand in overall pass defense, and over the past month or so the 49ers have been hurt by the injuries to DE Dee Ford, LB Kwon Alexander, and S Jaquiski Tartt. All three of those players are likely to play on Saturday - although it remains to be seen how much and how well after being out for several weeks.

The 49ers defensive front is pretty solid at defensive end, but a bit less so in the interior, particularly in terms of the traditional run-stopping, hole-plugging nose tackle. None of their starting defensive linemen are over 300 pounds (Buckner is listed at 6’7”, 300), and these are not the Akiem Hicks or Linval Joseph type interior defensive linemen. They’re more athletic, penetrating, finesse players rather than the overpowering, two-gap, run-stuffer type. Their edge-rushers are generally pretty good run defenders, but their interior guys not as much.

And because the 49er defensive linemen tend to try to slip past blockers rather than occupy them, that means their linebackers will have linemen to deal with in run support. That makes run support and tackling more difficult, and is reflected in their PFF grades in those areas.

During this past pre-season, Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson was singing the praises of defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, who’s never had particularly great stats. But Stephen is able to occupy offensive linemen, he said, which makes the linebacker’s job much easier. Patterson went on to say that for a guy like Eric Kendricks, having a couple big run-stuffing type defensive tackles in front of him like Joseph and Stephen, allows him to roam more freely and do his job more effectively. And when you look at Kendricks’ All-Pro performance this season, you can see he was right.

The 49ers don’t have the Joseph and Stephen type defensive tackles, and so their linebackers have a more difficult task.

All that has led to the 49ers ranking just 23rd in yards per rushing attempt allowed on the season, at 4.5. And despite having the 9th fewest rushing attempts against, they’ve allowed the 17th most rushing yards per game. In fact, the 49er defense has allowed 100+ rushing yards per game in all but four games this season.

That’s an important stat because the Vikings starters have only lost one game in the past four seasons when they’ve rushed for over 100 yards.

The other issue with the 49ers needing their linebackers is run support, and not having the big run-stuffing defensive tackles in front of them, is that it makes them more vulnerable to play-action passes.

Bill Barnwell, over at ESPN.com had an article a couple weeks ago about each playoff team’s “kryptonite” and which team would be their worst match-up. For the 49ers, it was play-action passing and the Vikings would be their worst match-up:

On defense, the 49ers have struggled to stop opposing offenses when they fire up their own play-action opportunities. While the San Francisco defense has generally been great in 2019, Robert Saleh’s unit has allowed teams to post a passer rating of 112.9 off play-action, which ranks 24th in the NFL. When teams haven’t used play-action, the 49ers have allowed a passer rating of 66.6, which is second in the NFL behind the Patriots.

The Vikings have been the league’s most devastating play-action team. They’ve actually turned to play-action on nearly 32% of their dropbacks, which is just ahead of the 49ers for the second-highest rate. It has unlocked a career year for Kirk Cousins, who has thrown 13 touchdown passes without an interception and posted a passer rating of 136.3 off play-action. No passer with 100 play-action attempts or more has been better.

The return of Dalvin Cook, and Alexander Mattison for that matter, gives more credence to the Vikings running game, and therefore the 49ers linebackers will have to respect the play-action fake or risk being caught out of position. That, in turn, creates opportunities in the passing game off play-action for Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense.

For the Vikings defensively, they will once again be without a true slot cornerback with MacKensie Alexander out and Mike Hughes on IR. Presumably they’ll go with Andrew Sendejo again in that position, who filled in very well last Sunday against the Saints. Jayron Kearse is another option too. But defending the 49ers slot receiver - usually Kendrick Bourne - isn’t the primary focus for the Vikings defense.

The first priority for the Vikings will be to stop the 49ers run game. The 49ers run the ball about half the time, and use a committee approach of Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Brieda. Mostert may be the best of the bunch, as perhaps the most elusive, but they all have a relatively high percentage of their total rushing yards on long (15+) runs. The Vikings will need a strong performance from the defensive line, All-Pro LB Eric Kendricks, and others to keep the 49ers running game in check.

Minimizing the 49ers running game will put the Vikings defense in more advantageous situations on 3rd down, and in the red zone, while also putting more pressure on Jimmy G to deliver in those situations.

The top priority for the Vikings passing defense is to minimize TE George Kittle. He’s the best TE in the league and their best player on offense. He’s also clearly Jimmy G’s go-to and most targeted receiver.

Beyond Kittle, Garoppolo’s next favorite targets are his backs collectively, including FB Kyle Juszczyk, and then his receivers Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders, and Kendrick Bourne, in that order. It will be interesting to see how Mike Zimmer chooses to cover this group, as none of them are #1 receivers. Samuel is a rookie with a running back build and 4.5” speed, Sanders is a more typical slot receiver (although he plays outside), small and once was fast (4.4”), but that was 10 years ago. Bourne is 6’1” 200lbs, but with 4.7” speed, and usually plays slot.

Upfront, the Vikings face an offensive line similar to the Vikings’ OL - two decent tackles, but weaker interior linemen. In the last match-up, 49er tackles Joe Staley (now 35) and Mike McGlinchey gave up 8 pressures, but no sacks, between them to Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. It was also Staley’s worst PFF graded game over the last two seasons. It was McGlinchey’s first game as a pro. Both 49er guards struggled somewhat in the game, and in the end Garoppolo was pressured on 50% of his pass attempts, although only sacked once on a safety blitz by Harrison Smith.

This time around, the 49ers will have the same offensive line except for veteran center Weston Richburg, who recently was injured and placed on IR. He is replaced by Ben Garland, a career backup now 31.

It’s unclear if the Vikings will line-up Everson Griffen inside this time around, or try any other tactics (like A-gap blitz looks), to make life difficult for Garland and the interior linemen. Garoppolo is more mobile than Drew Brees, but is also more negatively effected by blitz pressure than Brees.

Looking at all his sacks this year (36), Garoppolo often only senses pressure when it’s too late. So, despite being somewhat mobile, he doesn’t seem to avoid many sacks. He seems particularly vulnerable to interior pressure, which often just kinda freezes him, and blindside pressure - particularly blindsides blitzes, which he often never sees coming.

OFFENSE

The 49ers and Vikings both operate off-shoots of the same scheme, and so their playbooks and play-calling overlap quite a bit. But there are differences in approach.

For example, the Vikings go under-center about 50% of the time, whereas the 49ers only about 35%. That may be explained by quarterback preference, and also some different influences over the years between Kyle Shanahan and Gary Kubiak and Kevin Stefanski. Generally play-action, which both teams run about a third of pass attempts, is more effective from under-center because teams tend to actually run more when the quarterback is under-center, compared to in shotgun formation, so linebackers are more likely to react to the run fake.

The Vikings tend to take more deep shots down the field, and to receivers Diggs and Thielen, while the 49ers target TE George Kittle the most. Both teams like to run the ball, and will want to establish their running game, particularly the outside run game, and employ a lot of misdirection plays.

Both teams like outside pitches and reverses, and both teams have good fullbacks they use as lead blockers and also occasionally as receivers. The 49ers have a slightly better (0.1) yards per average on rushing attempts, while the Vikings defense is slightly better (0.2) in defending the run in terms of yards per average rush allowed.

Kirk Cousins has the better ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt) stat when it comes to passing at 7.73 vs. 7.22 for Jimmy G, but the 49ers have the best pass defense in terms of net yards per attempt allowed, at just 4.8 yards. The Vikings pass defense is 5th in that metric at 5.8 yards.

Be that as it may, with Garoppolo not throwing many deep balls, and the 49ers defense not allowing many, the key to each team’s offensive production may come down to red zone efficiency - which was an important factor in the last match-up as well.

SITUATIONAL FOOTBALL

Overall, the 49ers offense was 21st in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns (53.2%), while the Vikings defense was 2nd best in not allowing them (43.8%).

On the other hand, the Vikings offense was 10th best in converting red zone opportunities into touchdowns (60.7%), while the 49ers defense was ranked 22nd in preventing them (60.0%).

Those stats give the Vikings a clear advantage in the red zone on both sides of the ball.

On 3rd down, the 49ers’ offense is 5th best, converting 45% of those opportunities, while the Vikings defense was 19th in preventing conversions, at 39.7%.

The Vikings were able to convert 42.8% of their 3rd down opportunities (10th best), while the 49ers defense allowed only 33.3% of them to be converted (2nd best).

Those stats point to an advantage for the 49ers on third downs.

SPECIAL TEAMS AND TURNOVERS

Dan Bailey is still working his magic this season for the Vikings - hitting 93% of his field goals. The same is not the case, surprisingly, for 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, who’s normally automatic whenever he takes the field. He’s struggled this season - making just under 75% of his field goal opportunities.

Turnovers are usually an important factor in playoff games, and were also a key factor in the last meeting between these two teams. The Vikings defense ranks 4th in takeaways (31), while the 49ers rank 6th (27). However, in the last six games for the 49ers, they’ve produced only 5 takeaways. In the Vikings last five games with starters playing, they’ve produced 16, or just over 3 per game. That includes 2 against the Saints, who only had 8 turnovers all season.

Bottom Line

Many factors could prove decisive in the outcome of this key Divisional Round match-up: Quarterback performance, turnovers, red zone efficiency, the battle in the trenches, perhaps even playoff experience among players and coaches.

Do the 49ers and Garoppolo come out strong after a week off? Or do they come out a bit off and out of sync coming out of a bye-week into a playoff atmosphere many have never played in before?

Are the Vikings able to maintain their level of execution from last week’s victory over the Saints? Will their game planning and play-calling out-smart the 49ers, or will it be the other way around?

Stay tuned.

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