Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
When the 49ers’ defense lines up across from the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday there will not be much mystery involved. Even though Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has spent his entire career with Minnesota, his offense looks very similar to what the 49ers run thanks to some heavy-duty gene splicing from the Shanahan tree.
Gary Kubiak currently serves as assistant head coach and offensive advisor for Minnesota, but his NFL coaching career started with the 49ers in 1994 as the quarterbacks coach under offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, and he would serve as Shanahan’s offensive coordinator in Denver before becoming a head coach in his own right and hiring a young assistant named Kyle Shanahan.
The Kubiak-Shanahan influence can be seen in a Vikings’ offense that features heavy play-action and play-action rollout on the back of a run heavy scheme. Despite all the familiarity, the Vikings offense can still present issues for the 49ers’ defense.
Keeping it basic:
Minnesota seldomly uses three- and four-wide receiver sets, which means the 49ers will be in their base defense for the majority of the game. If the Vikings can run the ball effectively and stay out of obvious third-down passing situations, they will keep two of the 49ers’ best defensive players, defensive end Dee Ford and nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams, on the sideline.
Stop the run and have some fun:
Priority number one for the 49ers’ defense will be to stop the run. The Vikings will feature the run early and often in order to slow down the 49ers’ pass rush and set up the play-action and play-action bootleg pass game for Kirk Cousins. The 49ers have been susceptible to the bootleg this year (see the second Rams game), so the Vikings will test Robert Saleh and company to see if they fixed that hole in the defense.
If the 49ers can minimize Minnesota’s play-action, their defensive line can start to pin their ears back and rush Kirk Cousins. Most quarterbacks become less effective under pressure, but Cousins, more than most, sees a drop in his performance when pressured.
Outside the numbers:
If the Vikings can keep Cousins upright there could be opportunities on the outside for Minnesota’s talented wide receiver duo, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen and Diggs are a tough matchup for the 49ers’ cornerbacks and could be the biggest mismatch Minnesota has to exploit.
The Boyz are back in town:
One of the benefits of owning the number-one seed is getting the first-round bye, and as a result the 49ers are getting healthy at the right time. For the first time all season, the 49ers had all 53 players on the active roster available for practice this week.
The 49ers are on track to get several starters, as well as the pass rush specialist Ford, back this week. Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt returns after breaking his ribs against the Ravens in Week 13 and starting linebacker Kwon Alexander will return from injured reserve in time for Saturday’s game. Alexander has been out since tearing a pectoral muscle on Halloween.
In addition to getting Tartt, Ford and Alexander back from injury, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell will make his season debut. Mitchell was signed during the bye week in order to fortify the 49ers’ run defense. The Niners had been a little light up front after losing their only true nose tackle, D.J. Jones to a season ending ankle injury following the game against New Orleans.
In the end:
Getting back to full health should get the 49ers’ defense back to the form they exhibited early in the season when they were a dominant force. A healthy Ford will keep the Vikings from devoting too much attention to Nick Bosa and the return of Tartt will close the hole in the 49ers pass coverage that teams exploited while he was out. No matter how much Alexander plays on Saturday, his energy will lift the entire team and provide a much-needed boost, which all adds up to a difficult day for Cousins and the Vikings’ offense. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings struggle get into a rhythm offensively and are held to 17 points or fewer while sacking Cousins multiple times and intercepting him once in the process.
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