Five 49ers to Watch Against the Vikings
Jose Luis Sanchez III
After spending the wild card weekend resting, the San Francisco 49ers will prepare for their first playoff game since 2013 against the Minnesota Vikings.
This is a matchup that will have both teams looking in the mirror since they are so similar. They both run the ball at an elite level, have elite defenses and love to run play-action. Saturday will show us all which team is the dominant version to move on up towards the NFC championship game.
For the 49ers to advance, they will need to rely up on some key players to ensure victory. With that said, here are five 49ers to watch against the Vikings.
Now that the 49ers have entered the playoff realm, the performance of quarterback Jimmy Garoppplo becomes critical. His guaranteed one or two errant throws that he has had in every game this season needs to be a thing of the past. The margin for error in these games becomes razor thin. Mistakes and average performances will not get the job done as a quarterback, especially if the 49ers want to get to Miami.
During the regular season it is much easier to win a game without a quarterback having to shoulder the burden. That much was evident for the first half of the season when Garoppolo played more of a serviceable role until his breakout game on Halloween. He’s been performing at a relatively high-level over the course of the last five games, especially in week 17 against Seattle. Now he must maintain that level of consistency flawlessly.
The 49ers are a good enough team to overcome their mistakes, but it isn’t a guarantee that they will in a playoff game against an elite Vikings team. Not to mention that this is Garoppolo’s first career playoff start. There’s a chance that he could come out with the jitters and tighten up. It just makes his role in Saturday’s divisional playoff game a pivotal one.
Playoff time is when the stars of each team need to show out. That is why George Kittle is a player to watch closely. Kittle has been on absolute tear since returning from his fractured ankle. It didn’t what or who opposing defenses threw at him. Kittle gashing a defense was a lock in every game.
However, he will be in for the biggest challenge in the biggest stage (so far) of his career. The Vikings rank as the top defense in passer rating allowed against tight ends with 60.3. With two elite safeties in Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, head coach Mike Zimmer has devised a great scheme to optimize their abilities. Not to mention that linebacker Eric Kendricks a renowned coverage defender.
That is three players that could double or bracket on Kittle. It’ll be interesting to see how they defend him and if Kittle will be able to breakthrough. I’m not one to doubt Kittle after the season he has had, but it would be naive to think it won’t be challenging for him come Saturday. If Kittle does end up getting contained, then the responsibility in the receiving game will have to fall on Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel.
Arguably the most overlooked player on the San Francisco 49ers is slot cornerback K’Waun Williams. What he does for the 49ers' defense is what a queen does in the game of chess - everything. Williams doesn’t just cover a slot receiver, which he is elite at. He blitzes efficiently when called upon and gives aid to the run defense soundly. All these traits, along with his sharp coverage, is why he is Pro Football Focus' second highest graded slot cornerback.
Williams is going to need another top-notch performance when the Vikings come to Levi's Stadium on Saturday. Robert Saleh is sure to hand Williams a heavy platter of duties. First and foremost, he will likely see matchups against both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in the slot. Both of these receivers are one of the most polished route-runners in the NFL.
Covering these two will test the limits of Williams. He will also need to play big role against the stretch runs that the Vikings utilize with Dalvin Cook. Williams is not afraid of contact and can lay the wood at any given moment. Saleh is also sure to dial up a couple of blitzes for Williams in certain situations. Without a doubt, Williams' role on Saturday will be a major one. The 49ers need him to show out or he will be a weakness that the Vikings attempt to exploit.
One of the main reasons that the pass rush of the 49ers has failed to get to the quarterback is because of the absence of Dee Ford.
Ford has been one of many players on the defensive front who have sustained injuries that has caused them to miss a significant amount of time. Now that he is set to return on Saturday, the pressure that falls on his shoulders is like two cinder blocks dropping on him. He most likely will not see great deal of snaps, but that is exactly why the pressure is heavy on him.
Ford will be in play on plenty of passing downs, which could be roughly 20-25 snaps in the game. He needs to make his limited action count in such a critical matchup. The pass rush has been waiting on Ford to return so that he could be the key that gets them back on track. At this point, he is the last hope for the sack numbers spiking up again for the 49ers since they are dried out of depth.
Laying hits on Kirk Cousins will be a key to winning Saturday's matchup. Ford and company have to get their against a shaky pass protecting offensive line. If they can get to Cousins quick enough, then it will significantly ease the pressure on the secondary. Doing so will essentially make the game the 49ers to lose.
Halloween night against the Arizona Cardinals was the last time that Kwon Alexander was seen in a 49ers uniform. He tore his pectoral muscle in that Thursday night game and was placed on injured reserve. However, Alexander has shown that he is the miracle man and is now poised to make his return on Saturday in the divisional playoff round.
Alexander has been practicing with the 49ers in a limited capacity while wearing the blue non-contact jersey. Basing on what I have seen in practice, he looks well-conditioned and explosive. What was also encouraging was seeing how he responded going against the sled since it utilizes the pectoral muscles. See him attack below.
Of course, there is a chance he will look rusty out there since game speed is much different than practice speed. That is why he is a player to watch closely on Saturday. He will either be a liability or someone who will contribute tremendously. The most revealing part will be if he plays the majority of his snaps in base defense, especially with Dre Greenlaw playing fantastic in nickel. For all we know, Alexander could be up and ready for Saturday as a major contributor.