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Previewing the Vikings - 49ers Matchup

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The 5-5 Minnesota Vikings hit the road to face the 5-5 San Francisco 49ers in a game that could prove to be pivotal in the race for wild card seedings and a ticket to the post-season. As it stands currently, the Vikings are the 6th seed in the NFC and the 49ers are the 7th seed. Both teams enter the contest with two-win streaks after a slow start to the season to even their win/loss totals at 5 each.

The 49ers are 3 point favorites at home and look to continue the type of trench warfare gameplan against the Vikings that has helped them get decisive back-to-back wins over the Rams and Jaguars.

Vikings Don’t Match Up Well Against the 49ers

While the 49ers may not be the best team the Vikings have played this season, they may be the toughest matchup heading into Sunday’s game. Here’s why.

  • The 49ers have averaged about 160 yards rushing over the past two games, and the Vikings rank at or near the bottom of the league in most run defense metrics. The 9ers have a solid left-side of their offensive line, headlined by the best tackle in the league, Trent Williams, along with Laken Tomlinson and veteran center Alex Mack. The right side, which has been hit with injuries, isn’t as distinguished, but they also have TE George Kittle, who in addition to being among the best receiving tight-ends in the league, is also one of the best blocking ones. Overall, the 49ers have the 4th highest run blocking grade in the league.
  • Additionally, the Vikings defensive line will be starting backups across the board on Sunday, with Hunter, Tomlinson, Pierce and Griffen all out. That leaves a likely starting line, with little rotation, of Sheldon Richardson, Armon Watts, James Lynch, and DJ Wonnum.
  • The 49ers also have one of the better coverage units in the league, with the 7th best coverage grade according to PFF. They also rank third in passing yards allowed, and 8th in net yards per passing attempt allowed. They haven’t allowed more than 274 yards passing in a game since week one.

49ers Game Plan Should Be Pretty Clear

The 49ers have gotten back into a winning groove by running the ball and generating a couple key turnovers in each of their last two games. That is likely to be their game plan against the Vikings as well. They will seek to establish the run, and wear down the Vikings depleted defense with their power run game, supplemented by intermediate routes to WR Deebo Samuel and TE George Kittle, hoping for additional YAC from them as well. Expect a lot of motion from the 49ers offense pre-snap, as that has become their trademark under Kyle Shanahan. The motion is used both to disguise and disrupt the defensive play call, while also giving some insight to 49ers QB Jimmy Garappolo.

Defensively the 49ers will try to take away Justin Jefferson and the Vikings passing game, betting the Vikings can’t keep pace offensively without a strong passing attack led by one of the best WRs in the league. They may also try to maximize pressure on Cousins with occasional blitzes, although Cousins is the 3rd highest graded QB in the league this season when blitzed.

Vikings Game Plan: Stretch The Field Offensively, Get Off the Field on 3rd Down Defensively

The 49ers have lost to the Cardinals twice already, most recently 31-10 with Colt McCoy at QB. The Cards like to stretch the field with their passing attack, and the Vikings may well employ the same strategy against the 9ers defense. That will put some pressure on the Vikings pass protection, and Kirk Cousins, but would seem a necessary risk in order to get the offense hitting on all cylinders. The 49ers will get DE Dee Ford and LB Dre Greenlaw back, but it's unclear what kind of impact they’ll have. Ford hasn’t been as effective a pass rusher for a couple years now, and this will be Greenlaw’s first game since week one, so he could be a little rusty.

But a successful downfield passing game will open up the run game and provide more space in the middle of the field as well, so I suspect that will be a focus for the Vikings to establish early on. Using more 4WR sets could be a part of that, in order to get Justin Jefferson in single coverage, or using him in motion and in the slot in 3WR sets could accomplish that as well. The 49ers haven’t faced a passing attack and QB as good as the Vikings’ much this season, and when they’ve faced a better passing attack, they’ve usually lost. They lost to the Packers week 3, and the Cardinals both week 5 and 9. The only good passing attack they’ve beaten was the Rams week 10. The key there was early turnovers leading to a 21-7 lead at halftime.

Which brings up perhaps the key point for the Vikings. They need to get off to an early lead and win the turnover battle. The way the 49ers want to employ a punishing run game to wear down the Vikings defense, the best way to get them out of that game plan is to have a 2+ score lead, which will force them into more passing. Secondly, the Vikings also need to win the turnover battle, and keep time of possession close. Both of these are essentially ways to help keep the Vikings defense fresh, while allowing the Vikings offense an extra drive or so to capitalize on.

Absent that, the Vikings defense needs to first force third downs, and then get off the field on them. I suspect the 49ers will have a lot of 3rd and managable, which will put the pressure on the Vikings defense to prevent easier conversions. And 4th down conversions too. The 49ers haven’t been great on 3rd down this year, and the Vikings defense continues to be good in that situation, so that is a place they need to have success if they’re to win the game Sunday.

Defensively, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings have more players in the box to defend the run- and the short/intermediate passing game- which will leave them susceptible to an occasional deep ball from Jimmy G. That’s not his strong suit- 34th of 35 among QBs in deep passing PFF grade - so that’s a risk worth taking. What may not be a risk worth taking is blitzing Garappolo. He has a much better grade and passer rating when blitzed compared to when he’s not, so playing coverage may be the better way to go- despite having a defensive line that isn’t likely to generate a lot of pressure.

Bottom Line

This looks to be a tough matchup for the Vikings defensively, particularly with a depleted defensive front. They’ll really need to lean on their offense to both score and maintain possession, while on defense they’ll need to generate a turnover or two, or do a good job getting off the field on third down. Getting out to an early lead could be key as well.


The Vikings are 3 point underdogs on the road at San Francisco. Will the Vikings....

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