This Sunday the San Francisco 49ers will be traveling to Minnesota to face the Vikings. So far this preseason the 49ers first team offense has been very shaky. They haven’t reached the red zone in the first two games so far this season. Usually, coaches don’t treat preseason games very seriously. Teams often don’t even game plan for the team they plan on playing. However, week three of the preseason is usually the “dress rehearsal” for teams. So expect the starters to play into the 3rd quarter this Sunday night. Here is my insight on what you’re going to be seeing from the 49ers’ offense and Vikings defense.
Know the Opponent
Last season the Vikings showed they have a young but stout defense. Minnesota finished 20th against the run and ranked 3rd against the pass. Another year of experience under this defense’s belt is only going to make them stronger. So this is a great test for Shanahan and the 49ers’ offense.
Vikings’ Defensive Line
The Vikings defensive line is one of the more stronger D-lines in the league, led by the likes of Linval Joseph, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, and Daneille Hunter. Everson Griffen destroyed below average offensive tackles last year. However, he did struggle at times versus tough competition. Griffen has locked in as one of the Vikings defensive ends. The Vikings signed veteran defensive end/outside linebacker Datone Jones from the Green Bay Packers this offseason, they envisioned his athletic ability and physique translating better as a defensive tackle, or a three-technique. But Jones has been quiet this preseason, and another veteran acquisition Will Sutton hasn’t splashed much either. Backup defensive tackle Tom Johnson returns for his fourth season with the team, but even with 14 sacks in three seasons as a rotational pass rusher, he leaves much to be desired against the run.
However, rookie Jaleel Johnson blew up several plays at and behind the line of scrimmage in Minnesota’s game at Seattle. Johnson blew past offensive linemen, almost untouched. If Johnson can repeat that performance with more splash plays against the 49ers, the team will have to take a long look at not only keeping Johnson on the active 53 man roster but starting him. It doesn’t end there, though. Standing in the way of the two rookies is long-time Viking Brian Robison, who returns for his 11th season and is the longest tenured player on the team. Even as his starting role decreased last year due to the emergence of Hunter, Robison still racked up 7.5 sacks and added three forced fumbles. He can also rush from the inside, and he is still a leader in the locker room.
Eric Kendricks is manning the middle and Anthony Barr holding down the SAM linebacker spot for the Vikings defense. Kendricks in 2016, tallied 109 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks and one interception that was taken back for a touchdown. Anthony Barr had 70 combined tackles, two sacks, and deflecting four passes. The weak side linebacker position for the Vikings is a different story, however. Before camp began this year, the fight for Greenway’s starting spot was thought to be between Minnesota linebackers Emmanuel Lamur and Edmond Robinson. However, as of three weeks ago, a new player has been thrown into the mix.
Fourth round rookie linebacker from Michigan, Ben Gedeon, has been catching the coaches attention since training camp has started. Gedoen spent the past four years playing for the University of Michigan. During his only season as a starter on Michigan’s defense in 2016, the linebacker finished with 94 total tackles (15 for a loss), 4.5 sacks, and two pass deflections. Kendricks and Barr are both great against the pass and run. It would be smart for Shanahan to target Gedoen’s side of the defense.
The strongest part of the Vikings defense would have to be their secondary. Led by safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota’s secondary helped the defense rank fifth in the NFL last season by allowing just 18.9 points per game. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn each played all 16 games last season, and safety Andrew Sendejo was second on the team with 100 tackles. Minnesota boosted its secondary depth by signing two-time Pro Bowl safety Michael Griffin as a free agent in March.
The Vikings also have a handful of young players ready to step up in cornerback Trae Waynes, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse. During the 2017 offseason, Captain Munnerlyn left Minnesota in Free Agency. However, the Vikings selected Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander in the second round of the 2016 draft and will likely give him more responsibility in Munnerlyn’s place. Look for Alexander to be the starting slot cornerback in the game on Sunday.
Potential Key Matchups
After two lackluster performances for the 49ers starting offense, here are a couple of matchups to keep an eye on during Sunday night’s game.
1. 49ers Offensive Line vs. Vikings Defensive Line
Heading into week three of the preseason the San Francisco 49ers offensive line are currently ranked first in the NFL with regard to PFF pass blocking efficiency with a rating of 89.5. During the 2016 regular season, the unit had a total pass blocking efficiency of 71.7, which ranked 29th. PBE measures pressures allowed on a per-snap basis with a weighting towards sacks allowed. In 62 pass plays, the 49ers O-line has only allowed eight quarterback pressures. It should be a great battle for the O-line going against a team with a robust and deep defensive line.
However, can the 49ers show any improvement in the running game Sunday could be an excellent opportunity? Carlos Hyde has only managed 26 yards on ten carries averaging 2.6 yards a carry. According to NFL.com, thru two preseason games, the Vikings rank 29th in the league versus the run. Allowing an average of 140 yards rushing a game.
2. 49ers Wide Receivers vs. Vikings Cornerbacks
Vikings strongest point of their defense is the secondary. So Sunday night will be a stiff test for Hoyer and his pass catchers. Expect veteran Pierre Garcon to be covered by up-and-coming corner Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes is becoming one of the leagues best press corner and locking down receivers with ease. Garcon is a savvy veteran that knows how to get open. Marquise Goodwin will likely be going against third-year corner Trae Waynes. Waynes hasn’t had the greatest start to his career struggling through his first two seasons. Goodwin has been having an outstanding camp and could be primed to have a strong game.
Look for the 49ers slot receivers to be covered by either Mackensie Alexander or the never aging veteran Terence Newman. So far through the 2017 preseason, the Vikings are ranked as the 21st best pass defense. The preseason hasn’t been kind to the Vikings. However last season they were ranked 3rd in the league. I, wouldn’t sleep on this secondary.
Players to Watch
As I mentioned earlier, the 49ers first team offense have struggled finishing drives. Here are three players to keep an eye this Sunday night in Minnesota.
1. QB Brian Hoyer
Kyle Shanahan appointed the starting role to Hoyer immediately after signing him. So Hoyer hasn’t had to fight anyone for snaps with the 1st team offense. In the first two preseason games, Hoyer has struggled. He needs a solid game to give the 49ers fans confidence heading into week one against the Panthers. Hoyer has yet to lead the 49ers offense downfield for a touchdown. Hoyer needs to show he deserves the starting role. CJ Beathard has had an excellent offseason/preseason. He has already taken the number two spot from Barkley. If Hoyer struggles, one would have to think rumblings about Beathard starting could start up.
2. RB Carlos Hyde
Carlos Hyde hasn’t gotten much going in the preseason in 2017. Averaging 2.6 yards a carry won’t get it done in the regular season. Hyde will also need a strong showing to prove he can be the number one back in this offense. A strong running game is a major key to success for Shanahan’s offense. So far thru the preseason, the Vikings have allowed 140 yards a game rushing. Hyde is going against what appears to be a struggling run defense. Sunday night would be a good time to show up.
3. QB CJ Beathard
As I previously mentioned, Beathard has seemed to have taken the number two quarterback spot from Barkley. Beathard is the only 49ers quarterback that has scored a touchdown in the preseason. He has shown the poise and confidence you look for in an NFL quarterback. Beathard will be going against a solid number 2 Vikings defense. If Beathard plays well in this game, while Hoyer struggles, one would have to assume Beathard will begin to creep into the number one quarterback spot.
The regular season is just right around the corner my fellow Faithful. Week 3 of the preseason is a good measuring stick for teams to see how players have progressed. Kyle Shanahan and his offense will need a strong showing to build the confidence of 49ers fans.