Week 1 provides us with the first bit of real information from which we can start to assemble a profile of what each team is going to look like in the coming season. It’s hardly enough to completely toss out everything we thought we knew about the team entering the season, but rather helps us identify things we need to be keeping an eye on. Considering everything that happened to them this offseason, the 2015 San Francisco 49ers’ first impression gave us a lot to think about.
A dominant final 35 minutes paved the way for a 20–3 49ers victory over the visiting Minnesota Vikings, not bad for a 2.5-point home underdog. For a team with so many unknowns heading into the season, there was a lot to digest from that performance, but we’ll start with San Francisco’s new-look defense.
While the offense struggled to move the ball effectively for much of the first half, the 49ers defense held things down and kept points off the board even when blunders from San Francisco’s special teams handed the Vikings excellent field position. Following a blocked Phil Dawson field goal that was scooped and returned to the 49ers’ 26-yard line, NaVorro Bowman & Co. promptly forced three straight Teddy Bridgewater incompletions to force a 44-yard field goal that Blair Walsh pushed wide right. Another three-and-out for the Vikings on the ensuing possession had them punting out of their own end zone, but Jarryd Hayne misjudged the ball in the air and was unable to haul it in cleanly. Minnesota jumped on the loose ball and was given a free possession at midfield. However, big stops on third- and fourth-down plays, including an excellent open-field tackle from safety Antoine Bethea, meant no Vikings points once again.
Big stops from your defense in sudden-change situations like those completely change the complexion of the game. Those mistakes could have easily gifted the Vikings a double-digit lead before the end of one quarter at little to no fault of the 49ers’ defense, simultaneously putting pressure on the offense to respond quickly or be forced into catch-up mode. Instead, Eric Mangini’s unit allowed the 49ers to weather the storm and stick to the game plan. Minnesota finished the first half with 118 total yards, 27 of which came via a Jarius Wright reception on the final play of the half versus prevent defense. Remove that meaningless yardage and the Vikings averaged a pedestrian 3.5 yards per play over the opening half.
Much of that success is owed to Mangini’s excellent work confusing Bridgewater in key situations and helping his defense get off the field. Minnesota converted just 1-of–11 third and fourth down tries, with Mangini throwing myriad looks at the second-year quarterback. Many of those plays began in similar fashion, with the 49ers aligning nine or 10 defenders within a few yards of the line of scrimmage, crowding the box and pressing on the outside. But from that initial alignment, Bridgewater and the Vikings offense appeared to have no idea what was coming next.
On one third down late in the first quarter, rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt burst unmolested through the A-gap for a sack so quick you would think it was a glitch if it happened to you in Madden. Instead, it was just brilliantly manufactured pressure from Mangini. San Francisco put seven defenders on the line of scrimmage, each aligning within a gap in Minnesota’s offensive line. The protection completely falls apart after the snap as the Vikings have no idea who’s blitzing and who’s dropping into coverage. The result is Matt Kalil (75) and Brandon Fusco (63) blocking one defender, Joe Berger (61) blocking no one, and Tartt taking Bridgewater to the ground before he can even think about getting rid of the ball.
For as much trouble as Mangini’s blitzes gave Bridgewater and the Vikings’ protections — Bridgewater went 6-of-9 for 53 yards, an interception, and four sacks against the blitz according to ESPN Stats and Info — the design of his coverages were just as effective at times.
On the Vikings last-ditch effort to start a comeback, Mangini again showed pressure by putting 10 defenders within three yards of the line of scrimmage. The pre-snap coverage look — single-high safety, rolled-up cornerbacks — made Bridgewater think he had Charles Johnson singled up with Kenneth Acker wide left. Post-snap, the defense quickly morphs into Cover 2 man with Eric Reid bailing back into a deep-half coverage, effectively doubling Johnson. The protection is befuddled once again, as Minnesota allows Aaron Lynch to come unblocked off the edge, forcing running back Matt Asiata to come across the backfield to get a piece of him. Bridgewater is frozen just long enough when his primary option doesn’t come open the way he thought it would to allow Lynch to fight through Asiata’s block and pick up San Francisco’s fifth and final sack of the night.
Bridgewater failed to convert a single third or fourth down through the air on Monday night, finishing 3-of–6 for 11 yards and three sacks on 11 drop-backs. And while much of that credit should rightfully go to the players for executing at such a high level, Mangini consistently gave his defense the edge by dialing up looks that changed Bridgewater’s field picture post-snap, leading to indecision, inaccuracy, and a health dose of pressure.
Hyde Yo’ Kids
Carlos Hyde showed plenty of flashes during his rookie season, but there was nothing in his 2014 performance that could’ve reasonably prepared us for what happened Monday night. Despite the occasional highlight-reel run, Hyde was inconsistent at best a year ago. He had nearly twice as many carries (17) stuffed for no gain or a loss as he did runs that went for double-digit yardage (9), and just one of those carries topped 15 yards. There was, however, a clear split when you looked at Hyde’s production in zone runs as opposed to the power runs preferred by the 49ers under Jim Harbaugh.
Hyde’s comfort level with zone runs, the rushing style he thrived in under Urban Meyer at Ohio State, couldn’t have been more apparent against a Vikings defense that looked overmatched in the run game. Though the 49ers coaching staff preached all offseason that they wouldn’t abandon the power runs featured so prominently under the previous regime, they went almost exclusively to the zone-running game in Week 1 and Hyde took full advantage.
El Guapo dominated the Vikings front on his way to 168 yards on 26 carries, breaking probably a million tackles (rough estimate) in the process. His 77 yards after contact were more than any other player in Week 1, per ESPN Stats and Info, continuing the trend from his rookie season of being nearly impossible to tackle on the first try. Hyde was decisive and showed great burst through the hole whenever a crease opened in Minnesota’s front (which was, um, a lot), and displayed patience when the blocks weren’t as quick to develop.
It was a remarkably impressive performance that was effectively the complete opposite of his 2014 production. Hyde was stuffed for no gain or a loss only twice by the Vikings defense and nearly matched his big play production from the entire 2014 season. He broke free for at least 10 yards on six different occasions and fell just short (eight or more yards) on five more carries. That consistent production on the ground led to an absurd 77 percent success rate, a mark that would’ve led the league by 20 percentage points last year.
Perhaps most importantly for the 49ers offense, Hyde did the majority of his work on first down, averaging 7.2 yards per pop on 16 first-down caries. That effort consistently set up manageable third down conversions, provided San Francisco didn’t shoot themselves in the foot with dumb penalties.
Hyde was consistently tagged as the breakout candidate on this offense throughout the offseason, and was really one of the few points of optimism for many entering the season. While Hyde’s talent might have never been in question, how San Francisco’s running game would look in life after Frank Gore certainly was, particularly with an offensive line that looked atrocious in the preseason. Hyde’s performance went a long way toward putting those concerns to rest.
Every Rose Has Its Thorn
I would be remiss to pretend it was all smooth sailing for the 49ers in this game. I touched tangentially on the special teams mistakes and the silly, drive-killing penalties. Red zone issues that were supposed to disappear with Harbaugh and Roman were alive and well, with the 49ers attempting three field goals from inside the Vikings’ 11-yard line. But the biggest concern was San Francisco’s passing game.
The Torrey Smith-Reggie Bush-Bruce Ellington trio was supposed to infuse a mundane passing offense with big-play ability, but they produced just three receptions and 16 yards on six targets. There’s still plenty of time to get them integrated into the offense, but more concerning was the quarterback play.
If you paid much attention to Trent Dilfer during the broadcast, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking Colin Kaepernick was a revelation in the pocket. Dilfer was so effusive in his praise of Kaepernick — who worked out with Dilfer-protégé Dennis Gile during the offseason — at times for what often turned out to be negative plays, that you question what he’s going to do with that tape in the privacy of his own home. Outside of one or two plays, the reality was much different.
Dilfer frequently referenced how San Francisco’s new offense under Geep Chryst was unleashing the Ferrari that is Kaepernick’s athletic ability, but in practice Kaepernick might have never been more caged. Chryst relied heavily on play action rollouts that got Kaepernick away from the chaotic confines of the pocket and set up easy throws to tight ends over the middle, playing off Hyde’s success on outside zone runs on early downs. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Kaepernick went 12-of–14 for 114 yards on play action compared to 5-of–12 for 51 yards otherwise.
There’s nothing wrong with setting your quarterback up with some easy throws, but you have to be able to complement those plays with throws downfield from the pocket, especially in key situations. Almost every time the 49ers needed Kaepernick to drop back and find a receiver downfield in a clear passing situation, he failed to deliver, frequently struggling with footwork and accuracy. There were one or two notable exceptions, particularly a 3rd-and-14 conversion in which Kaepernick stepped up nicely in the pocket to avoid pressure and eventually hit Vernon Davis at the end of his progression and nearly gave Dilfer orgasmic convulsions. But plays like that were far from the norm. It will take a close look at the coaches film later in the week to determine exactly what was going on, but the early returns on Kaepernick’s performance aren’t good.
Of course, with both the positive and the negative, it’s important to keep this game in proper context — we need only look back one year for an example of how drastically things can change following the season opener. This was only the first piece of the puzzle, and each week we’ll learn a little bit more about what this team will ultimately be. But in a game that could’ve easily turned into a disaster after early mistakes, it’s hard not to come away impressed with our first look at the 2015 49ers.