San Francisco’s phenomenal win-streak towards the end of last season after the acquisition of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo propelled expectations for this team’s future into the stratosphere.
Now with an improved roster, strategic acquisitions and further development of its rookies, the likelihood that the 49ers will boost their 6-10 record from last season looks very promising.
But, how good will this team actually be in 2018? Their first test is quickly approaching, as the Niners begin their second year into the ShanaLynch rebuild on the road at Minnesota this Sunday, September 9.
Here’s what we can expect from this Week 1 matchup:
BOTH TALENTED OFFENSES – BOTH IN FLUX
A legitimate potential exists for both Garoppolo and Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to finish the season in the top five with most yards passing and touchdowns. Both players possess the talent, skills, coaching support and mindset to get the job done.
But, both quarterbacks also are in a state of transformation to start the new season. Cousins is new to Minnesota and will be working with the Vikings new offensive coordinator (John DeFilippo). Garoppolo played in just five games with San Francisco last year, and 2018 will be his first career year as a named starter.
Each also has a bevy of good playmakers at their disposal, with Cousins arguably having the edge in this department. The 30-year-old former Redskins quarterback will get his support from wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (considered the top duo in the league) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (tied for eighth-most touchdown receptions by any player in 2017).
Meanwhile, Garoppolo’s wide receiver ammunition includes ten-year veteran Pierre Garcon, the reliable Marquise Goodwin and clutch sophomore Trent Taylor, as well as second-year tight end George Kittle (who caught at least one pass in every game he played last year) and the versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
Ironically, the wild cards for both offenses are each team’s running games and newly-built offensive lines which are similarly in flux.
Minnesota has the former Florida State star running back Dalvin Cook. He flashed his potential for brilliance during his rookie year in 2017 when he was ranked second in the NFL in rushing after Week 3 (288 yards), the most by any Vikings rookie through three games. But, a knee injury forced him into a shortened campaign and caused him to see limited time during this preseason.
The 49ers acquired free agent running back Jerrick McKinnon in the off-season, but he is out for 2018 with an ACL tear sustained during last week’s practice session. Luckily, the team signed veteran Alfred Morris during the summer to pick up the slack for this gimpy corps. He’ll likely seem major game time over second-year back Matt Breida since he is proven against the Midwest opponent (Morris has had 100-plus scrimmage yards in two of three career games versus Minnesota).
This all makes Sunday’s contest between San Francisco and Minnesota a mouthwatering proposition. We should expect to see the football flying through the air in abundance. But, we will also experience two teams trying to realize their full potential. With so much change up front, it is likely to take a few games for each to find their offensive mojo which could potentially be explosive for both teams.
So, this Week 1 competition between the 49ers and Vikings will likely come down to defense…
DIFFERENT TIERED DEFENSES
On paper last year, the Vikings ranked as one of the best defenses in the league. They finished with the #1 Total Defense, #2 Passing Defense and #2 Rushing Defense. The team also allowed the fewest points per game (15.8) and fewest yards per game (275.9). In the off-season, this crew got even better. They added skilled reinforcements like defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to bolster an already filthy D-Line, among other players.
Minnesota’s defense also kicked butt on third downs last season. It was the best team since 2002 in this area – they allowed opponents the ability to only convert 25.2% of their third down attempts into first downs or touchdowns. The team also allowed opponents to turn only 43.2% of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns last year.
By comparison, the 49ers attained a low-tier defensive status in 2017 under first year defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. They finished with the #24 Total Defense, #22 Passing Defense, #22 Rushing Defense, #25 in Points Allowed (23.9), #24 in Yards Allowed Per Game (351.6), #30 in Opponent Third Down Conversion and #26 in Opponent Red Zone Scoring.
While San Francisco upgraded its secondary with the addition of Richard Sherman and expect its young defensive stars to improve, their inability to address pass rush issues in the off-season remains worrisome. They managed only 30 sacks in 2017 and put inconsistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Niners best defensive player (Reuben Foster) is also out of Sunday’s lineup due to a two-game suspension for off-the-field issues.
In all likelihood, the Vikings will try to take advantage of the 49ers’ defensive weaknesses which could help Cousins put up the big numbers he is capable of with his talented group of playmakers. It’ll be up to 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to be a beast in this game. And, he definitely has a shot. The Vikings offensive line has troubles with injured players and is considered the one major weakness of this team. Either that, or the 49ers’ secondary will have to neutralize the scoring potential in the backfield.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota will probably give Garoppolo fits and try to break up the clever versatile schemes Shanahan will try to dole out. The Niners offensive line will also have their work cut out to stop defensive ends Everson Griffen (thirteen sacks last season), and Danielle Hunter (seven sacks) from getting to Garoppolo.
IT’S DOABLE, SAN FRANCISCO FANS
The 49ers offense has an uphill battle against an elite Vikings defense on Sunday. Their chance to win relies on the ability to keep Jimmy G clean and upright to allow him delivery of the ball safely into the end zone, convert on third downs, and the receivers need to eliminate drops (a problem in the preseason).
At the same time, the Niners defense needs to expose the Vikings’ weak offensive line and take away Cousin’s ability to get the ball to Thielen and Diggs. Sherman will likely be a big target on Sunday as well, so he’ll need to be at his best.
Good luck, Niners!
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