Three Keys to Victory For the Vikings Against the 49ers
Considering the stakes, the venue, and the opponent, last weekend's performance made it clear: the Vikings can beat any team in the NFL when they execute at a high level for the better part of 60 minutes.
But pulling off a second straight big-time upset isn't as simple as "they have to play well." The 49ers are a very different team than the Saints, and they present new challenges and new potential areas of weakness to exploit. This should be a fascinating battle between two extremely talented rosters and the minds of Mike Zimmer vs. Kyle Shanahan, as well as Kevin Stefanski/Gary Kubiak vs. Robert Saleh.
Here are three things the Vikings can do to help them advance to the NFC title game.
1. Win the pressure battle
To me, this is the most obvious thing that is likely to play a major role in the outcome of this game: which team can get more pressure on the opposing quarterback? Both defenses have outstanding pass rushers, and both quarterbacks tend to struggle when under duress.
For the Vikings, Zimmer has to be thinking about continuing to line up Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter on the inside of the defensive line after that worked so well in New Orleans. It won't come as a surprise anymore, but it still might make sense considering the makeup of the 49ers' offensive line. Tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey are solid, but San Francisco is starting a backup center and two decent-at-best guards.
If Hunter and Griffen can continue to be the game-wrecking forces they were last week, the Vikings should be able to force Jimmy Garoppolo into some mistakes. Jimmy G turned the ball over 18 times this season (13 picks, five lost fumbles), and is much better when he has a clean pocket. Ifeadi Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly could also play important roles in applying pressure. Can Anthony Harris snag an interception for a fourth straight game?
On the other side of the ball, Vikings tackles Brian O'Neill and Riley Reiff will have their hands full with Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford. Also concerning is the pass-rushing ability of DeForest Buckner. A lot of the spotlight will be on Kirk Cousins, as usual, but he frequently goes as his offensive line goes.
2. Don't let the 49ers get their offensive weapons into open space
Vikings fans won't be too surprised by what they see from the 49ers offense on Saturday. It's one that looks fairly similar to what Minnesota runs, as both Shanahan and Kubiak come from the same Bill Walsh/George Seifert/Mike Shanahan coaching tree. They'll run outside zone with their three running backs, and will utilize lots of misdirection and play-action.
But Shanahan is on another level than Stefanski as an offensive schemer and playcaller. He's incredibly good at finding ways to get his weapons into open space by disguising plays and using those weapons interchangeably. In addition to three running backs, all of which can catch the ball out of the backfield, Shanahan likes to play with three main guys, hybrid-type players who can line up all over the place: fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle, and rookie receiver Deebo Samuel. We already wrote about the challenge of stopping Kittle, but don't overlook the dangers of Juszczyk or Samuel. All three can burn defenses in the open field and get open vertically.
"You look at them offensively, there’s a lot of shifting and motioning," said Vikings DC George Edwards. "He uses a lot of different people to do a lot of different jobs offensively. There’s a lot of things that try to slow you down as far as your reaction and those kind of things. We have to do a good job of getting lined up, being disciplined with our eyes and when the ball turns over, execute."
Eric Kendricks is the key to the defensive puzzle for the Vikings. He's maybe the most disciplined, instinctual, and versatile linebacker in the league. If he (and Zimmer) can blow up some of Shanahan's best-laid plans, the Vikings should be able to get their defense off the field. Anthony Barr, Eric Wilson, and all three Vikings safeties will also play big roles in coverage.
3. Ride your big three to victory
The term "big three," in this case, refers to Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs, and Adam Thielen. As usual, the Vikings' offensive gameplan starts with Cook. Last week against the Saints showed how important it is to get him going early on, both because of the physical tone that he sets and because other aspects of the offense open up when he's gashing a defense.
"I think as you guys have seen all season, Dalvin is a special player," Stefanski said. "When he touches the ball, good things happen. Does it open up other elements of our game? Certainly it does, and we’re never going to shy away from saying that we’re going to be multi-faceted in how we attack a defense, so having number 33 is certainly a nice bonus for us."
Just like last week with the Saints' Demario Davis, expect a bit of a fun one-on-one matchup between Cook and 49ers MLB Fred Warner. Those two should meet in the hole a few times.
Of course, the offense can't just be Cook. Cousins will have to have a big day, and doing finding Diggs and Thielen for big plays is always his best avenue towards that. Diggs was mostly a non-factor last week, and has another difficult matchup as he figures to see a lot of Richard Sherman. This is a big opportunity for him to break through and make a couple splash plays. As for Thielen, whose ankle injury remains a concern, he's an x-factor this week just like he was last week. His all-around skillset gives this offense another dimension when he's fully healthy. Let's hope that's the case on Saturday.