The 49ers’ preseason rolls on as the team travels to Minnesota for the true dress rehearsal of the season ahead against a highly regarded Vikings team. Coming off a season where they missed the playoffs, there is a legitimate belief that this Vikings side could put themselves in position to challenge the dominance of the Packers atop the NFC North.
Though there is nothing tangible riding on the result of this encounter, it will certainly be a litmus test for the 49ers’ starters and inexperienced coaching staff, as they get the change to glimpse the early season capabilities of the roster they are presumably placing the finishing touches on. Following a realistic week’s preparations, everyone connected with the 49ers – employees and fans alike – will be intrigued to see how the team stacks up against the rising Vikings.
The offense will arguably have the tougher challenge on Sunday, facing up against one of the best defenses in the NFL with players who are already thought of as elite at their positions or thought to be on the verge of breaking into such exclusive clubs. On the other side of the ball, and what we will be handling here, the 49ers’ defense will be facing up against an improving offense, led by underrated quarterback Sam Bradford and a dangerous passing game.
The Passing Game
Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford had by far his best year as a pro last season, demonstrating qualities that the 49ers’ division rivals the Rams failed to elicit from him during his time in St Louis. He was the NFL’s most accurate quarterback last season, with an 80.9% adjusted completion percentage per PFF and was exceptional under pressure, showing a rare willingness and ability to stand in the pocket and deliver behind a poor offensive line. On the rare occasions he was asked to do so, Bradford was also accurate as a deep passer and the addition of Riley Reiff and Michael Remmers at tackle should ensure that Bradford and the Vikings are able to call the longer developing plays that facilitate the deep ball. Bradford should be even more impressive this season as his supporting cast develops and he could put himself in position to earn a big contract at the end of this season. Could 49ers’ fans and coaches be watching their quarterback of the future playing against them this weekend?
Last season, the emergence of receiving duo Adam Thielen (83.1 overall grade per PFF) and Stefan Diggs (84.0 overall grade per PFF) went some way towards making up for the rookie struggles of 2016 first round pick Laquon Treadwell. By the end of the season, Thielen was arguably Bradford’s number one target whilst Diggs tailed off a little following an explosive start to the season. Diggs showed some notable versatility, as he demonstrated his aptitude out of the slot and now, with Treadwell having forced himself into starting discussions with a solid second offseason, will ensure the Vikings can get their best three receivers onto the field together. The Vikings’ tight end, Kyle Rudolph is also a dangerous receiving threat (81.4 receiving grade per PFF) and the Vikings’ 11 personnel passing attack will be the first major test for the 49ers’ defense as they face a highly competent quarterback and multiple versatile receiving threats.
For the first time this offseason we will get the chance to see Dontae Johnson and K’waun Williams properly tested as starters and it will be fascinating to see how Johnson and fellow outside corner Rashard Robinson handle the difference between the Vikings’ receivers, as the shiftier Diggs plays alongside one of or both of the bruising duo of Treadwell and Thielen. Treadwell and Thielen should offer a legitimate physical battle off the LOS for whoever they face and will likely relish the physical style of play the 49ers’ scheme demands from its outside corners. We might also see rookie Ahkello Witherspoon given some opportunities against some superior talent and the physicality of Treadwell and Thielen will be a rude introduction to what NFL starters are capable of. Robinson in particular will have to make sure that he makes his tackles, notably on third downs when the 49ers have utilised Tampa 2 looks and been punished as Robinson missed his man and allowed the first down. Jerick McKinnon is particularly dangerous as a pass catcher out of the backfield and expect the Vikings to get him the ball near Robinson and challenge the 49ers’ best corner to make the tackle.
Additionally, we should get a better opportunity to look at the coverage abilities of the 49ers’ linebackers and safeties against an offense that has legitimate receiving options at every spot, especially on third down. Rudolph will be a significant test for whichever player is forced to cover him and it would seem that based on athletic traits, the 49ers will be forced to use either strong safety Eric Reid (or Jaquiski Tartt) or linebacker Reuben Foster lined up against Rudolph in man coverage. If the 49ers fail to utilise many man coverage looks we could be seeing a glimpse of some doubts in the abilities of the man coverage abilities of the defense as a whole.
The receiving abilities of the aforementioned McKinnon will also be a major threat to the Niners’ safeties and linebackers. Owing to the strength of the Vikings’ passing game, there is a real possibility that we see some dime defense, perhaps with Tartt subbing in for Bowman on third downs so the 49ers can better match up against the Vikings’ pass catchers in man to man coverage in particular. Finally, Lorenzo Jerome will be looking to improve again as he continues to press his case for significant playing team this season. He will have to be extremely disciplined and be hyper-aware of the Vikings presumably looking to attack him specifically.
Undoubtedly however, one main way to slow a passing game is by recording pressure on the quarterback. So far this offseason, the 49ers’ starters along the defensive line have failed to generate much pressure but should be hungry to face an average offensive line. Despite Bradford’s accuracy in the face of a rush, pressure will force the Vikings to be more conservative with their passing game and consider keeping Rudolph in as a pass blocker, removing his threat as a receiver. The key will be if the 49ers can get pressure with just their four defensive linemen consistently. Exotic blitzes utilising defensive backs and linebackers are exciting and useful when utilised sporadically, but will leave the coverage vulnerable against the Vikings strong passing attack. The defensive line must do their job. Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and the 49ers’ stable of nickel edge rushers should be excited to be able to attack the Vikings’ biggest weakness on offense, though guard Joe Berger is one of the best pass blockers in the NFL.
The Running Game
Of course, the other side of the coin for the defense (and especially the defensive line) is the running game. Unlike the passing game, where the 49ers are likely to be severely tested, the 49ers should be able to continue their strong performances against the run against an underpowered Vikings ground attack. Fresh off a week where he was hailed as close to elite as a six-tech early down defensive end, Tank Carradine should be relishing his matchup with Rudolph (a poor run blocker) and whichever tackle the Vikings are (hopefully) forced to use to help their tight end.
A player who should be equally determined to play well for his coaches is third year pro Eli Harold, who this week saw the conclusion of his battle for the SAM linebacker spot with the release of long time 49er Ahmad Brooks. Harold has undoubtedly benefitted from Carradine’s strong performances but has also flashed solid edge setting ability and will assist in preventing the Vikings’ two headed running attack of Latavius Murray and rookie Dalvin Cook from getting to the edge of the 49ers’ defense.
Inside, the mobility, explosive power and experience of Earl Mitchell should see him with the upper hand in his battle with rookie centre Pat Elflein whilst former 49er Alex Boone and rising guard Berger will have to shut down the 49ers’ backup three-techniques in the likely absence of starter DeForest Buckner. This task should be more simple than their second key assignment, as they will be the offensive linemen who will most likely be tasked with trying to prevent Navorro Bowman and Reuben Foster from being able to halt the Vikings runners before the elusiveness of Cook in particular can truly threaten the 49ers’ defense. If the Vikings do try and utilise an outside zone game to bring out the best from Cook, the 49ers’ defensive backs will need to make their tackles should Carradine and Harold fail in their task to set the edge.