After stunning the Saints in overtime on Sunday, the Vikings will head West to take on the top seeded San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional round of the NFC Playoffs. To get to know more about the Niners, I asked Kyle Posey of Niners Nation to enlighten us on the team he covers so well. He provided a lot of great insight and went beyond a lot of the “name” players that most Vikings fans are likely familiar with already.
Back in early July, Kyle and I had a fun back-and-forth discussion about the respective merits of Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins. It was the offseason and Pro Football Talk had some ridiculous story about replacing Jimmy G with Cousins if things went south for each quarterback in 2019. Thankfully, like many offseason notions PFT throws at the wall, it didn’t pan out that way at all. This week we find Garoppolo leading the top seed in the NFC and Cousins coming off of his first career playoff victory. It’s amazing the difference six months can make.
Our Q&A session about Saturday’s matchup follows.
Daily Norseman: The 49ers are getting healthy at the right time, including all three levels of their defense. Edge rusher Dee Ford, safety Jaquiski Tartt, and linebacker Kwon Alexander are all practicing this week after missing significant time. Which defender’s return will benefit the 49ers the most on Saturday?
Niners Nation: That’s a tough one as each player means so much to this defense. Alexander is probably the biggest from an emotional standpoint. He brings an energy that is unmatched. Nick Bosa said he’s the leader of the defense and makes it impossible to not have fun when you’re out there. Tartt is probably the more technical guy. The 49ers had to dial back some of their coverages with him out and go more vanilla, and that hurt. He’s a sound football player that makes few mistakes and that’s what the 49ers pride themselves on. Ford is the most impactful guy to get back. Teams have been doubling Nick Bosa on third downs, and DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead on early downs daring the fourth rusher to win. You can’t do that with Ford on the field, who defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said unlocks everything for the rest of the defensive line.
DN: San Francisco has employed a three-headed attack at running back for most of the season with Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, and Matt Breida all getting significant playing time. Will we see a fair amount of all three this weekend, or does one of the backs stand out as a better matchup against the Vikings?
NN: Tevin Coleman usually starts, doesn’t do anything, and they sub in Mostert, who is the best back on the team, or has been this year. He’s the closest thing to a “bell cow” on the roster. He’ll lead the team in touches and has played very well when he gets touches. He’s a home run threat waiting to happen. Breida is no slouch, he just gets banged up. They’re all talented and capable of a big play, but Mostert is the guy that should get 15 touches.
DN: This will be the playoff debut for many key players on the 49ers, especially on offense. We’re pretty sure that George Kittle will be just fine--he’s the best tight end in the league and destroys everything in his path. But what about Jimmy Garoppolo? Do you have any concerns of how he’ll handle his first postseason game? How much has he changed since the Vikings last saw him in Week 1 of 2018?
NN: I think the second half schedule did wonders for this team. Playing in tight ball games is one thing, but doing it against playoff-caliber teams is another. Garoppolo didn’t just carry his weight, he came back and made plays when called upon. I’m not too worried about Jimmy G on the big stage. I think quite a bit is different. For starters, his group of pass catchers is worlds better. He’s playing with confidence and has been for over a month. I think the offense rolling the way they are is one of the biggest changes. Not to mention Shanahan’s confidence in Jimmy. He’s seeing the field better and making quicker decisions. He still does have a tendency to hold onto the ball under pressure, which could be an issue with this Vikings front.
DN: With so many stars on both sides of the ball for the 49ers, give us one relatively unheralded player on each side of the ball that could have a big impact on the outcome Saturday.
NN: Jimmie Ward is a stud. Everyone knows about the defensive line and Richard Sherman, and even Fred Warner to a lesser degree. Ward doesn’t make highlight plays, but he makes the plays on the back end that you don’t see that matter. He’s often taking away routes and fitting against the run when needed. The 49ers bet on him in the offseason and he rewarded the team with a great season. On offense, it’s probably Mostert. Kittle and Jimmy G steal the show most of the time, and Sanders and Deebo are great, but this offense is unstoppable when Mostert gets going. He makes it look so easy, too.
DN: The 49ers are 13-3 and all three losses came in the final seconds of the game. They’re the favorites to come out of the NFC and seven-point favorites on Saturday. In your opinion, what’s the most important thing they need do they take care of business against the Vikings? Conversely, what would have to go wrong for San Francisco to lose this game?
NN: Now that the 49ers are healthy, the pass rush should return to form. This defense terrorized offenses early in the season because they can get after you with four, but still have seven players in coverage. If the defense is able to get after Kirk Cousins, I like their chances. That, and keep Danielle Hunter as far away from Garoppolo as possible. On the flip side, they can’t turn the ball over. There was a stretch where receivers were dropping passes, runners were fumbling, or even on defense a couple of coverage busts that led to touchdowns. Those mistakes can’t happen at this point in the season. If you make them, you go home.
Thanks again to Kyle for his time and knowledge about the Vikings’ upcoming opponents. The Niners are no joke and the Vikings will need to put together another great performance to pull off their second straight road upset. Here’s to a great game on Saturday afternoon.