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Vikings-49ers Preview: Stopping the Run Will Be Tall Task for Minnesota's Backup D-Line

Can the Vikings take down a quality 49ers team on the road without their entire starting defensive line?

If the Vikings beat the 49ers on Sunday for their third win in a row, getting above .500 for the first time this season and picking up a critical victory in the NFC wild card race, they'll have done it without their entire starting defensive line. Against one of the best offenses in the NFL.

Sound like a daunting task? That's because it is.

Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce are on injured reserve. Dalvin Tomlinson is on the COVID list. Everson Griffen is on the Non-Football Illness list with mental health issues. The Vikings began this season with one of the most imposing front fours in the league, but they're now back to where they were in 2020, piecing together a defensive line rotation with duct tape and hope.

On Sunday in Santa Clara, they'll be down to the likes of D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II, Eddie Yarbrough, and Tashawn Bower at defensive end. Kenny Willekes is a maybe. Outside of Wonnum — who has mostly been disappointing this season — that group includes two journeyman veterans who were signed off the street recently and two young players who made their NFL debuts within the last few weeks.

The situation is only slightly less bleak at defensive tackle, with Armon Watts, Sheldon Richardson, James Lynch, and a potential practice squad callup forming the rotation there.

Regardless, the Vikings still have a job to do, and they're confident that they have the depth to survive these personnel losses.

"I wouldn’t use the term depleted," said co-defensive coordinator and d-line guru Andre Patterson. "I don’t look at it that way. This is a football team. Like I’ve said before, you prepare everybody to get a chance to play. You never know. Injuries happen in this game, and in the COVID era and the way it is, any guy that’s on our roster that’s out there practicing every day, we coach him every day, so other guys get a chance now to step up and play. I expect them to go out there and play and put us in position to win on Sunday. That’s what I expect, and that’s what I said to the room today. 

"The San Francisco 49ers are not going to feel sorry for us. I don’t feel sorry for us. We’re going to go compete. That’s who I am. We’re going to go compete and we’re going to go play for 60 minutes and find a way to win the game. That’s why we’re going. Whoever puts on a purple helmet and goes out there and plays for me is going to give me everything they’ve got for 60 minutes, and we’re going to find a way to win the game. That’s how I approach it."

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Playing without your entire starting defensive line would be a tough situation against any team. But the opponent on Sunday is the 49ers, a team that like the Vikings, is much more talented than their 5-5 record indicates. San Francisco is a quality team with an outstanding offense that ranks 4th in the NFL in DVOA. 

They've got a solid offensive line led by left tackle Trent Williams, two unique blocking weapons in Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle, and one of the game's elite playmakers in Deebo Samuel. With all of those pieces being coached by Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo executing the scheme well as of late, it doesn't matter if it's Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr., or even Samuel at running back. This is a team that likes to run the ball, uses a ton of motion and misdirection, and is going to be awfully difficult for Minnesota to stop.

But like Patterson said, the Vikings can't feel sorry for themselves.

"Next man up," Richardson said. "I hate to be so cliché, but it's just that simple. Next man up, and don't be the person you're replacing. Be yourself. Do what coach asks you to do, and when the play comes to you, and you're in position to make it, make it."

The Vikings need the defensive linemen they do have available to step up to the plate and give everything they've got, and they need Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and the defensive backs to fly to the ball behind them. If they can do that, they'll have a shot.

Offensively, the onus will be on the Vikings to not waste possessions and to continuing being aggressive downfield with Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. This is a good 49ers defense led by Nick Bosa and Fred Warner, but the Vikings have more than enough talent to put up points.

Ultimately, it'll come down to the Vikings' depleted defensive line — sorry Coach Patterson, I'm using that term — and their ability to keep the 49ers from running all over the place on Sunday afternoon.

And because it's a 2021 Vikings game, you already know it'll come down to the final play of the day. This should be a fun one with huge playoff implications.

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