The football Gods are not kind to the San Francisco 49ers during the first month of the season. 4 games against legitimate playoff contenders, 3 games on the road & 2 dreaded 10am PST starts. The toughest partridge on that pear tree comes opening week against arguably the most talented roster in the NFL & the biggest threat in the NFC to the Super Bowl Champion Eagles. Going into just its 2nd season in existence U.S Bank Stadium has already become one of the best home field advantages in the league, the 49ers will have an incredibly difficult challenge on their hands. Head Coach Kyle Shanahan & Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo have the daunting challenge of facing Defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer & a defense that is full of All-Pro talent at all three levels.
While its a challenge that would be overwhelming to you & I its one that this team with all of its confidence & youthful exuberance will be ready for. In the four games that they have faced each other Kyle Shanahan’s QBs have 9 TDs, 3 INTs & a cumulative passer rating of 109.9 (Per @Eric_Branch).
The Vikings defensive line is no joke, they pressured the QB 232 times last season, an average of 14.5 per game. They also led the league in 3rd down defense, only allowing a 25% conversion rate. No defense had ever allowed this low of a rate in recorded history, the stat began to be recorded in 1991 (per @LedyardNFLdraft). Their work at home was even nastier, only allowing 110 total points (an average of 13.8 points per game). The group of opponents included the Rams, the Saints, the Lions & the Ravens, all ranked in the top 10 in PPG during the 2017 season. This is a group that only got better in the offseason with the additions of 1st round pick CB Mike Hughes of UCF & prized free agent DL Sheldon Richardson.
While the Vikings is as good as one could field they have yet to play Jimmy Garoppolo. While the Vikings are as good as anyone at generating pressure, Jimmy Garoppolo was as good as any QB was in 2017 in dealing with pressure. Per @PFF QB metric Garoppolo led the NFL in yards per attempt while being pressured at 8.3 yards per pass & led the league in completion percentage while being pressured at 62.3%. Garoppolo was also deadly in terms of extending drives, with him under center the 49ers went 3 and out on drives only 5.9% of the time. That is the lowest rate that Football Outsiders has logged in the almost 25 years since they began tracking the stat (per @LombardiHimself). On 3rd down Garoppolo completed 62.3% of his passes, of which he converted 52.8% of them into 1st downs (per @RJMadrid & @PFFJeff)
The best example of Garoppolo’s excellence on 3rd down was his performance against the Jaguars on Christmas Eve. He went 10 for 15 on 3rd down against a top 3 3rd down defense in Jacksonville. Because of this performance it allowed MIN to overtake the mantle of #1 defense in the league. Under the “Franchise”’s guidance the 49ers were top 5 in points per game (28.8), first downs per game (23.4), yards per game (410.0) & yards per play (6.1)
While Garoppolo can thrive under pressure its going to crucial for Kyle Shanahan & the rest of the offense to take as much of the load off of his shoulders as possible & that will have to come via the run & via play action. Shanahan has long been a proponent of mirroring the run game with the passing game. His desire is to be able to run and pass out of all personnel groups. This causes confusion amongst opposing coaches and players as they cannot key in on what the game plan or play call will. That is something that definitely stood with Garoppolo at the helm, they were hardly in situations where they forced throw to stay in the game. For all the talk about Garoppolo over the last month of the season they were top 10 in rush attempts per game, rushing yards per game & right outside of the top 10 in 1st downs gained via the run.
Per Football Outsiders’ tracking Kyle Shanahan led offenses led the league for the third year in a row in usage of 21 personnel, which means 2 backs are on the field during the play. The 49ers ran 370 plays out of this formation, that percentage jumped up from 26% with Hoyer/Beathard under center to 42% of the time with Garoppolo as the QB, a trend that will seemingly continue into the future. This runs in contrast to the Vikings who had the highest percentage of plays in nickel in the entire league, which amounted to 77% of the time; conversely they had the 2nd lowest percentage of snaps in their base personnel at 21% of the time. By playing to their strengths as offense it will force the Vikings to go away from what makes them an elite unit, this is something the 49ers can exploit to their advantage.
While this game presents an incredible challenge for the 49ers, its not one that they can’t overcome. We shouldn’t be surprised if this game is close going into the final stages of the game. There is enough talent on the offense, on the defense & in the coaching staff to make this a tough & competitive game. Jimmy Garoppolo has shown the knack when the game is close & time is on limited supply that he can close it out & beat really good teams.
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