The San Francisco 49ers (5-5) are back in the thick of the NFC Playoff picture thanks to their two-game winning streak. They look to extend that mark in a playoff-altering matchup with the Minnesota Vikings (5-5) on Sunday at 1:25 p.m. (PT).
A win would give the 49ers a key tiebreaking advantage for one of three Wild Cards.
Here are Five Players to Watch:
Christian Darrisaw, Left Tackle, #71 — Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have a young offensive line with first round pick Christian Darrisaw anchored at left tackle.
Darrisaw (65.0 PFF grade) allowed two sacks to Green Bay’s Preston Smith last week, and will have no break as he must block Nick Bosa on Sunday. Bosa has 10.0 sacks, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 22 QB hits on 34 tackles through 10 games this season.
Although the Vikings have a top-3 running back in the NFL in Dalvin Cook, they also have one of the best wide receiver duos in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins will want to take shots to Jefferson and Thielen, but that will open up Bosa, Arden Key, Arik Armstead and the rest of the 49ers’ pass rush to attack.
Darrisaw must keep Bosa off Cousins’ back so the quarterback can take advantage of the 49ers’ deficiencies on the outside.
Armon Watts, Nose Tackle, #96 — Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are without their four best defensive linemen in Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson and Everson Griffin.
This leaves backup nose tackle Armon Watts, who had four tackles, a sack and a forced fumble last week against Green Bay, in a key run-stopping role.
The 49ers rededicated themselves to the run Week 10 against Los Angeles, and are now on a two-game win streak. Coincidence?
In last week’s commanding victory over Jacksonville, the 49ers ran 42 times for 171 yards. They must re-use the Los Angeles game plan by sticking to the run to neutralize this high-power Vikings offense.
Due to Minnesota’s current lack of personnel, the 49ers can double Watts, which should free up consistent second-level runs.
While the 49ers try to slow the game with long drives, Watts and co. will try to speed them up by stopping the run and forcing low-success passing situations for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Jaquiski Tartt, Safety, #3 — San Francisco 49ers
Safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt must bring down Cook in the open-field in run defense, while also keeping Thielen and Jefferson in front of them on deep passes.
Tartt (knee) returned from injury last week and showed no signs of fatigue as he played 87 percent of the 49ers’ defensive snaps (third most).
The Vikings will try to draw Tartt up to stop the run, then take their shots to their elite wide receiver duo. Cousins has a 112.5 passer rating when targeting the deep-middle part of the field, and a 128.2 rating when going deep-right per Next Gen Stats.
Jefferson, eight catches on 10 targets for 169 yards and two touchdowns, and Thielen, eight catches on 10 targets for 82 yards and a touchdown, are coming off their best combined game of the season.
The Vikings are 5-0 when either Thielen or Jefferson has 100 receiving yards. They are 0-5 when that fails to happen.
Dre Greenlaw, Outside Linebacker, #57 — San Francisco 49ers
Minnesota’s offense goes through Cook.
Cook opens up downfield passes by drawing in safeties. He faces an eight-man box on 25.47% of his carries per Next Gen Stats. He is still averaging 4.6 yards per carry and 91.8 yards per game.
The 49ers’ run defense ranks in the middle of the NFL, and are tied for fifth for most 20+ yard runs allowed (eight).
They’ll get a boost on Sunday with the return of outside linebacker Dre Greenlaw.
Fellow linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair has performed well in Greenlaw’s absence, but has missed 10.1% of his tackles this season per Pro Football Reference. Greenlaw has missed 3.7% of tackles since he entered the league in 2019.
The 49ers need the Seahawk-killer Greenlaw to come back strong, help in run defense against Cook and provide depth for the unit before they head to Seattle next week.
Brandon Aiyuk, Wide Receiver, #11 — San Francisco 49ers
Wide receiver Deebo Samuel is having a great season. He is second in receiving yards (994) and leads the NFL with 15.3 yards-per-touch. Tight end George Kittle has been excellent (89.5 PFF grade).
While Kittle and Minnesota linebacker Eric Kendricks battle, second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk might find some holes in coverage.
Aiyuk got off to a perplexingly slow start, but has two touchdowns and is averaging 66.7 yards in his past three games.
Minnesota will sell out to stop the run and force Garoppolo into uncomfortable situations. San Francisco needs Garoppolo to complete some second/third-and-long passes to Aiyuk to extend drives.
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