Well Faithful, that time has arrived. The NFL opening weekend is upon us, and we’ve got ourselves some 49ers football this Sunday! What some deem as a daunting task to go against what many consider a vaunted and sound Minnesota Vikings team, others see this as an early window of opportunity to make a statement that the San Francisco 49ers aren’t here to mess around. The 53-man roster is set, and these guys are more than ready to put up a fight against the former NFC Division champs.
Here are some key points to look out for come game time:
● Jerick McKinnon’s season-ending injury is huge for Shanahan.
With the loss of Jerick to a torn-ACL, it is clear than Shanahan’s entire gameplan for the Vikings was thrown out the window. Seen as the “big signing” of this past offseason, the loss of what was likely the focal point of the offense will have KS quickly needing to adapt and find ways to mix and match newly-minted running back Alfred Morris, and second year Matt Breida. Jerick brought the element of simply being a matchup-nightmare for LBs out of the backfield. His sure hands and quick feet paired with great speed and agility was why KS coveted Jet in the first place.
Jet’s usage could’ve been likely compared to that of Le’Veon Bell; Jerick could line out wide in Empty-Trey sets and still match up well against any CB. With his loss, look for newly-signed Alfred Morris to primarily take lead back duties, and spelled with Breida for passing duties and 3rd&long situations. At the moment, it appears the 49ers will lead a running-back-by committee — at least, until one of these guys outdoes the other.
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) September 4, 2018
● This is the statement game for the 49ers, more specifically, the pass rush.
With the pass-rush being a major question mark for the 49ers, this is the game to go out and make a good first impression for all of us. Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranks the Vikings’ offensive Line as the 28th-best in football. With DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas taking big strides to improve, the addition and growth of Cassius Marsh, and a “100% healthy” Arik Armstead, this 49ers front-seven is looking to make some noise against a patchwork OL.
Look for Saleh to dial up blitzes and “stunt” plays, which are designed to confuse defenders and create pass-rushing lanes that could open up holes in the OL. Also, on the topic of blitzing, Saleh loves to blitz his linebackers — covering mostly the A and B gaps when possible to create pressure up the middle and possibly open up lanes in which can be exploited. Recently reported, C Pat Elflein of the Vikings was playing limited snaps due to injury. This could be huge for DeFo when generating interior pressure. No Vikings OL graded better than a 70 on PFF, which is a big advantage for the 49ers, who ranked bottom-20 in garnering overall sacks. Look for Robert Saleh to dial up the blitzing and try to rattle new Vikings QB Kirk Cousins.
● Kirk Cousins vs. Pressure
Fresh off of a 3-year, $84 million, fully-guaranteed contract, Cousins comes into a situation where he is *expected* to lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl. To get there, however, he needs to remain confident under pressure. Last season, Cousins ranked in the middle of the pack of QB passer rating when under pressure. Aside from this, Cousins has also featured one of the worst QBRs when throwing on 3rd down — grading at 82.7, which was 31st out of 41 qualified QBs over the past 3 seasons.
He has also been a bottom-5 QB in terms of turnovers the past 3 seasons. However, when given a clean pocket (facing no pressure), Cousins is absolute money. He has a 111.6 rating when clean, ranking him as the 4th-best QB, only behind Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, and Tom Brady. It will be vital for the 49ers to generate pressure and knock Cousins off of his game if they want a chance at beating this squad.
Although pressure can rattle him, Cousins has proven to be clutch when it matters most. Last season against the Seahawks, Cousins wound up getting sacked 6 times and losing the ball on a fumble as a result of missed blocking coverages and terrible OL play while on the Redskins. However, he would wind up leading his team on a 70-yard drive with :35 seconds left to stun the Seahawks with a 17-14 victory. For most of the game he was off, but once he was given the chance, he proved himself to be a very deadly QB on the field. Look for the 49ers to try their best to generate pressure early and often in an attempt to keep Cousins from developing any sort of rhythm when throwing.
*Quick tidbit, Cousins is 0-3 in the 1st game of the season he’s started in*
● Garappolo & KS vs. the Vikings’ defense
Tasked with taking on one of the NFL’s best defenses, Jimmy G will primarily need to focus on picking apart what will be a very stingy secondary, as well as a formidable front-seven. Last season, Bill Belichick stated the Vikings’ defense:
…”[doesn’t] show different looks on D, but a combination of similar looks.”
This includes disguising man-coverage as zone, showing weakside blitzes and strongside blitzes, some blitz, all-out blitz, any combination of play-calling — all while showing the same “look” on defense. This will be a daunting task for Jimmy and KS to face, but if they can take on Jacksonville, they can at least hang with the Vikes.
We all understand that KS loves to scheme guys open in the field, which will surely put pressure on the Vikings defense, and likely create matchup problems for the LBs if the 49ers open in shotgun. Look for KS to scheme open receivers lined up against the slower linebackers the Vikings feature with guys like Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert on 3rd down and passing situations. A final injury report put out by the Vikings showed that their top corner, Xavier Rhodes, is questionable with a hamstring injury. If the injury lingers into Sunday, look for the 49ers’ offense to possibly pick on Rhodes and what will likely be a sore hammy.
● Back to the O, the 49’ers OL vs. Vikings’ Front 7 will be huge for Jimmy G
As previously stated, Mike Zimmer constantly calls different plays on defense while offering the same look. Understanding that Shanahan runs a zone-blocking scheme for his OL, pass and run protection will be vital if the 49ers simply want to move the ball first. Although Jimmy G’s release is impeccable, it won’t hide OL deficiencies every time. It will be key for the likes of guys like rookie Mike McGlinchey and new center Weston Richburg to avoid unnecessary penalties and keep the opposing DL in check. With the addition of Sheldon Richardson, the Vikes’ DL has vastly improved from last season. Matchups such as Richburg vs. Richardson and McGlinchey vs.Griffen will be huge for the right side of the OL if Jimmy G wants to run any boot-style plays. On top of the DL, the Vikings also feature prominent LBs in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, which will surely be out to clog running lanes and suffocate any “dink and dunk” passes from Jimmy G.
● And lastly…. the RPO (oh god!)
As many can recall from the opening night game of the Eagles vs. Falcons, the excessive “RPO this RPO that” from announcer Cris Collinsworth. Unfortunately, we’ll be hearing it more come Sunday. With the addition of new MIN OC John DeFelippo, who was the former Eagles QB coach, look for the RPO plays to be heavily involved in the Vikings’ offense. The RPO, or “run/pass option” gives the QB the ability to read the defense and quickly decide whether or not to hand the ball off to his RB, or look for an open receiver quickly. This style of offense will be huge for the underneath defenders; I.E. the guys who will be playing either a hard flat or a soft flat in nickel and sub packages. Also, the RPO can put heavy pressure on certain parts of the defense, such as the WILL linebacker, who’ll be in the flat/curl zone, the SS coming down to either stack the box or cover on a button/hook, and the MIKE who’ll be covering the mid-hole zone on the field.
The RPO can do heavy damage considering it makes the defenders quickly decide if it’s a run or a pass, in which if the defender bites on the fake, exposes a large part of the field if no one can back it up. Look for the 49ers LBs to test
their patience on these RPOs — especially rookie LB Fred Warner. Lots going on in this game. Understand that although this seems to be a “gimme” for the Vikings, this game could very well instantly scream playoff implications if the 49ers can find success. It’s very likely we’ll see this two teams at it again in the future, but for now, it’s game 1 baby, and we’ve got A LOT to look forward to!