After months of mock drafts, roster and record predictions, and other seemingly pointless debates, football is finally here. And for their Week 1 matchup, the San Francisco 49ers have the daunting task of traveling to Minnesota to take on the NFC runner-ups, the Vikings.
The 49ers ended last season as the hottest team in the NFL. They ripped off five consecutive wins after losing 10 of their last 11 previous games. Behind new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers quickly transformed into one of the best offenses in the league.
One of the biggest questions coming into this season is whether or not the winning streak was a fluke. Well, the 49ers get to prove themselves nice and early in the season by taking on one of the NFL's best teams.
The Vikings were the No. 1 seed in the NFC last year, and after a disappointing performance in the conference championship game, they’re looking to get over that hump this year.
They upgraded their QB by going from Case Keenum to Kirk Cousins; their young, talented running back Dalvin Cook is healthy and ready to wreak havoc; their two receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are both looking to build on career years; and their defense is as good as ever.
Couple all that with the 49ers missing their starting running back as well as their top linebacker, and things aren’t looking so good for the visiting team. But luckily for San Francisco, the game is played on the field and not based on what-if situations.
It’s tough to predict the first game of the season because of all the unknown factors, but we did get a slight glimpse of what a game between these two teams would be like from last year’s preseason. Check out this thread as a little refresher.
Garoppolo plays like himself
If Garoppolo is the real deal and can keep up that magic from last year, and with Kyle Shanahan calling the plays, the 49ers have more than just chance. It's also true that Shanahan-led QBs have had some success against Mike Zimmer-led defenses.
Matt Schaub, rookie Robert Griffin III, and Matt Ryan were/are a good group of quarterbacks, and Garoppolo fits in just fine with them. It’s not crazy to think that Shanahan can scheme his team into a win again.
Last year, Garoppolo and the 49ers took on the best defense in the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars. And no matter what Jalen Ramsey is saying this week, it doesn’t change the fact that Jimmy G and the 49ers dropped 44 points on them. In that game, Garoppolo completed 21-of-30 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar stat line in the upcoming game.
Garoppolo is a gunslinger so there will be a lot of highs and lows this season. In order to win this game, he needs to keep the lows as low as possible. The Vikes are hard enough to beat without giving them extra possessions by turning the ball over.
Pressure on Cousins
It’s no secret that the pass rush is probably the biggest need on the 49ers. They have decent interior pass rush with DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, but they’re severely lacking of rushers off the edge. While Cassius Marsh is a decent player, he's unproven, and right now isn’t the guy you can depend on to routinely get to the QB.
If the 49ers have any chance of winning this one, they need to make Cousins as uncomfortable as possible.
The Vikings offensive line is already pretty banged up with starting guard Nick Easton out for the season and starting center Pat Elfein out for the game. We also know Cousins has a reputation for holding onto the ball just a tad bit too long, as he was the fifth-most sacked QB last season. The 49ers were tied for 26th in the league for sacks last year. They’re going to need to find a way to get pressure and then finish the play when they get into the backfield.
Turnovers and field position
When playing a team like the Vikings, you can’t afford to give extra possessions or short fields. In order to win this game, Shanahan and the 2018 49ers are going to have to take a page out of the Harbaugh and 2011 49ers’ playbook.
The 2011 49ers played smart, careful football on offense and relied on tough defense and excellent special teams to win the field position battle. There’s no guarantee the defense will come up with any turnovers. In a perfect world, they would force them, but it’s not something you can predict.
However, you can make sure that the other team doesn’t get any turnovers by not putting the ball on the ground or throwing interceptions.
Punter Bradley Pinion has improved every year he’s been in the league — and believe or not he is a key to this game. If Pinion is needed in this game, the 49ers have to get good, accurate punts from him that pin the Vikings deep in their own territory. They also need great play from their gunners and other special teams players.
Breida and Morris pick up the slack
With Jerick McKinnon tearing his ACL last week, the starting RB load falls on Matt Breida and Alfred Morris. No one knows who will be starting or who will take the majority of the snaps, but the 49ers need one or both them to be effective.
Since McKinnon’s injury, Shanahan has said that the 49ers’ game plan for Week 1 has changed “pretty drastically.”
Shanahan’s scheme relies a lot on play action, and if the running backs aren’t a threat, then the defense can cheat a little. And in a game like this, even just a split second hesitation can make or break a play.
[DESIMONE: What if 49ers have a higher of Matt Breida than we think?]
McKinnon was brought in because he was such a threat to catch passes out of the backfield. With his injury, that now requires Breida and Morris to become something they haven’t been for their entire careers. Breida is only a second-year player, and only caught 21 passes all of last season. Morris is even worse, as he only has 57 receptions for his entire six-year career.
However, Garoppolo only did target his RBs 20 times in five games last year. It’s unsure if that’s because he was still learning the scheme or if he just doesn’t like throwing to RBs. But the contract the 49ers gave to McKinnon, along with coach Shanahan’s comments, suggests that running back receptions were a big part of the 49ers’ offense.
A lot of things need to go right for the 6.5-point underdog 49ers to win this game. With McKinnon’s injury, Reuben Foster’s suspension, and being in a hostile environment against one of the very best teams in the league, it will be difficult to pull off. If the 49ers keep it close and show some improvement from last year, it’ll still be a positive outcome even with a loss.
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