The regular season opener is going to provide a difficult test for the San Francisco 49ers. They’re headed on the road to one of the loudest atmospheres in the NFL, taking on the league’s best defense and are short-handed at numerous positions. In order for Kyle Shanahan’s squad to return back to San Francisco with a “W,” here are the players who will have to step up and play beyond their expectations against Minnesota.
Running back Alfred Morris
Ex-Vikings’ running back Jerick McKinnon was lost for the season with a torn ACL earlier in the week, which has completely disrupted the 49ers’ game plan — even Shanahan admitted to it. Tailbacks seemed to have the most success against the Vikings’ dominant defensive line, when they were catching balls out of the backfield — one of McKinnon’s strengths.
Luckily, San Francisco went out and signed veteran tailback Alfred Morris, who seemed to look like the most polished running back during the preseason. The best way to attack the Vikings’ defense on the ground is by running North-South. It’s what I’ve referred to as the “one cut and go” style, where the back puts their foot in the ground and turns up the field. That’s what made Morris so successful in the third preseason game in Indianapolis.
In order to take some pressure off of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Morris is going to need to step up and have good runs on early downs to put the 49ers in favorable third-down situations and limit the number of times that the Vikings’ pass rushers are turnt loose.
Linebacker Fred Warner
Without veteran linebackers Reuben Foster and Malcolm Smith (listed as doubtful), the 49ers are going to lean on their rookie to be focal point of the 49ers’ defense. Warner was productive in the third preseason game, racking up five tackles and flying all over the field.
The Vikings’ passing game is primarily situated in the middle of the field, utilizing play action to make Cousins only throw the ball 5-7 yards in the air. Warner is going to need to be a playmaker, limit yards after the catch and be a sound tackler.
That’s a tall order for a rookie starting in his first game, but for the 49ers to have success on defense, it’s going to begin with Warner in the middle of the field.
Tackle Mike McGlinchey
Here’s another rookie that’s going to have to step up and be dominant in his first ever NFL start. McGlinchey is going to have to block Vikings’ defensive end Danielle Hunter, who is one of the premier sack artists in the league.
Watching the Vikings’ dominant defensive line in the preseason, they abuse all of their opponents, whether it’s Hunter from the edge or defensive tackles Everson Griffin and Linval Joseph from the inside. McGlinchey is going to need to protect Garoppolo and give him enough time to execute on offense.
This game is going to be won in the trenches and the 49ers are going to need to protect well both in the running and passing game, otherwise it could be a long afternoon in Minnesota.
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner
On the opposite side of the ball, the 49ers’ best defensive player is going to have to play like it. The Vikings have been facing numerous injuries along the offensive line, with starting center Pat Elflein ruled out of Sunday’s contest against the 49ers.
In Elflein’s place, Minnesota will be turning to center Brett Jones, who’s a former Giants’ lineman that the Vikings traded for earlier this season. He’s going to be matched up against the 49ers’ best inside defender, Buckner.
If the ex-Oregon defensive star can generate pressure from the inside and force quarterback Kirk Cousins into poor throws, it could play into the 49ers’ hands. The odds are currently stacked up against the 49ers, but if these four players can ball out, the 49ers could have a happy return flight home.