“…I’m not going to lie, it changes things pretty drastically” were my thoughts about writing the offensive preview for this week’s game after hearing about Jerick McKinnon’s season-ending ACL tear; it also happens to be what Kyle Shanahan told the media when he was asked about how the injury would affect the game plan for Week 1. The 49ers offense has a tall task in front of them, facing the Minnesota Vikings on the road. The Vikings return a defense that allowed the fewest yards and points in the NFL last season.
The Vikings feel confident in their ability to pressure the quarterback with just their front four and as a result, according to Football Outsiders, the Vikings blitzed 24.4% of the time in 2017, ranking them 16th in the NFL. When the Vikings do blitz it is not usually of the exotic variety; Minnesota employs a defensive back blitz just 7% of the time according to Football Outsiders. The 49ers revamped the offensive line in the off season and have yet to settle on a starter at right guard although Mike Person appears to be the front runner. The interior of the offensive line will have a big roll in this game protecting against the double A-gap blitz, a favorite of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, and opening holes in the running game.
As we saw in his five starts last season, the 49ers offensive fortunes rise and fall with Jimmy Garoppolo. From the moment that Garoppolo took over last season, the play of everyone around him picked up, including the offensive line. For the 49ers to be successful on offense, Garoppolo is going to have to get the ball out quickly specially to help the right side of the offensive line with rookie Mike McGlinchey starting at right tackle and an unproven starter at right guard in Mike Person. One of the few knocks on Garoppolo last season were his interceptions, he will need to take better care of the ball over all and particularly against this Vikings defense.
The Skill Positions:
The offense is going to be short a big weapon with the loss of Jerick McKinnon, but overall comes in to this game with more weapons than it had at any point last season. At wide receiver, Pierre Garçon will play his first regular season game with Garoppolo at quarterback and should serve as a nice counter punch to the speed of Marquise Goodwin on the other side. Something to watch for is how Shanahan chooses to deploy rookie wide receivers Dante Pettis and Richie James, both of whom have the potential to make big plays. Tight end George Kittle will play a pivotal role in this game both as a receiver and as a blocker. Kittle’s ability to get open in the middle of the field and put pressure on the linebackers and safeties will be something to watch for, especially, in an attempt to pick up the slack for the running backs in the passing game. As a blocker look for Kittle (and reserve tight end Cole Wick) to be used to chip on the defensive ends for Minnesota. As far as the running backs are concerned, they will see less action in the passing game with Alfred Morris in place of Jerick McKinnon, but Matt Breida could see some of those targets. In the running game, I would expect that Shanahan will go with the hot hand much like he did last year when Matt Breida started to take carries away from Carlos Hyde.
The 49ers vs. the Vikings really is a matchup of two head coaches who are also top-notch coordinators and how Kyle Shanahan deploys his weapons against Mike Zimmer will be fun to watch. I expect that Shanahan will put the game in the hands of his best player, Jimmy Garoppolo, and have him throw the ball a lot. Watching the Vikings’ third preseason game against the Seahawks, it appeared that starting cornerback Xavier Rhodes had difficulty with the physicality of the Seahawks’ Brandon Marshall, so it will be worth keeping an eye on when Rhodes is matched up against Pierre Garçon, who is not as big as Marshall but is one of the more physical wide receivers in the NFL. The growth of Marquise Goodwin from U.S. Olympian who plays wide receiver, to a wide receiver who once was an Olympian has continued this offseason and he will be a real matchup problem for Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes, whom Pro Football Focus had rated as the 69th (Nice!) best cornerback. Goodwin will need to make some plays outside the numbers to keep the middle of the field open for Kittle and the running backs to operate. Also, look for the 49ers to use multiple wide receiver formations and for Dante Pettis to make a big play or two. Even though, I fully expect to see a pass-heavy game plan on Sunday, I do not expect the 49ers to forego the run. The Seahawks had consistent success running the ball between the tackles against the Vikings starters in Week 3 of the preseason, which, is something to note given the state of Seattle’s offensive line. Week 1 should serve as a real measuring stick for the 49ers as the they set out to prove that last season’s end was not a fluke but rather a harbinger of what is to come.
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