The divisional round is set for this Saturday as the 49ers will host the Minnesota Vikings in the first-ever playoff game at Levi’s Stadium. Minnesota comes in as the lowest-seeded winner from the wild card round after beating the number three seed New Orleans Saints in overtime on Sunday 26-20. The Seahawks will travel to face Green Bay in the other divisional round game on Sunday afternoon.
For now, the focus will be on the Vikings, who beat the 49ers in their last matchup in week one of 2018 by a score of 24-16. The game was within reach, even after three Jimmy Garoppolo interceptions, a dropped pass by George Kittle that would’ve gone for a huge gain or possibly even a touchdown, and a dropped pass by Dante Pettis in the end zone. But that was 32 games ago for 49ers. A lot has changed since then.
Minnesota boasted the 10th ranked offense, and the 7th ranked defense per Football Outsiders DVOA metric for the 2019 season, and it was a large reason they were able to beat the Saints. Against the Saints, the Vikings recorded three sacks with Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, both recording one and a half sacks each plus one interception at a key moment late in the game by safety Anthony Harris.
Offensively, the Vikings running game got a boost with Dalvin Cook returning to the lineup after missing weeks 16 and 17 with a shoulder injury. He hasn’t rushed for 100 yards or more since week seven and was hobbled by the shoulder injury dating back to at least week 13 against the Seahawks. But the offense is noticeably different with Cook inserted as the starter.
The biggest factor is whether or not Cousins puts together the rare good game he is prone to having. There was public tension between Cousins and his receivers this season for his inability to hit them when they’re open, prompting Cousins to issue apologies for missing those throws.
In the Saints game, he missed a wide-open Diggs that could’ve prevented the game from going to overtime. Still, Cousins has been just good enough to win games and hit two incredible throws late in the Saints game that led to points and the game-winning touchdown.
So what must the 49ers do to win the game and advance to the NFC Championship game? There are five things: contain the boot play action, use fullback Kyle Juszczyk more in the passing game, put pressure on Cousins, stop the screen, and feeding Raheem Mostert and the running game.
1. Contain the boot play action
The 49ers struggled against play-action post-Kwon Alexander injury. From weeks 1-8, the 49ers surrendered just an 80.1 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks on play action. In weeks 9-17, the 49ers surrendered a 111.9 passer rating with Alexander out of the lineup.
Getting Alexander back will help with the playoff run, especially against a play action heavy team like the Vikings, who run play action 25% of the time on offense and who roll Kirk Cousins out of the pocket on 41% of those snaps according to Steven Ruiz of FTW USA Today’s Viking’s playoff primer.
The Vikings run a similar play-action scheme to the 49ers in that they like to boot Cousins out and give him a variety of throws at all different levels. They will generally give him a 3-level read with a short flat route, an intermediate crosser, and a deep go route of some type like a streak or a corner route to the roll outside and outside zone as the run action.
Here’s an example of the type of play-action the 49ers will see this Saturday. Looks familiar, right? The play is a 3-level flood to the right with a slide route out of the backfield, an intermediate crosser, and a deep circle route as an alert. The Raiders laterally chase the outside zone as rookie tight end Ito Smith sneaks across the formation to the opposite way on the slide route and gains 26 yards.
Later in the video, the Vikings show why defending their play-action can be tough as Thielen fakes the corner route and cuts the post for a throwback as Cousins rolls the other way.
The tight end slide route is a staple of the Shanahan/Lynch system. Linebackers playing run cues have a hard time getting out to cover the tight end the opposite way. pic.twitter.com/j1vU34bSFf— rich (@richjmadrid) December 28, 2019
Here, the Rams run the same play with tight end Tyler Higbee on the slide route out of the backfield. The match-up is less than ideal because it gets a speedier player on a linebacker. Warner is fast enough to make up the ground, but his mistake is he does not finish with the tackle.
Getting Alexander back for the playoffs, while not fully healthy, will allow the 49ers to get another speedier player in the game against play-action, and one who’s recognition of the play is unmatched. Quarterback Jameis Winston is looking for the corner route by the tight end as he fakes the run handoff and drops back.
Alexander recognizes that it’s a pass and immediately runs with the tight end underneath, making any throw that direction tough. Winston comes off and throws hurriedly to Mike Evans, but the pass falls incomplete. His recognition is sorely missed.
In addition to getting Alexander back, the 49ers will need to stay in their outside rushing lanes and not get caught inside on the boot rollouts as they did against the Rams in week 17.
The 49ers adjusted in the second half and had Armstead contain rush outside to cut off the rollout lane from Goff, forcing an errant throw. In the first half of that game, the Rams were 8-for-8 on play-action for 96 yards and one touchdown. The Rams were less successful in the second half on play-action, completing 2-for-8 passes for 24 yards.
2. Get Juszczyk out of the backfield against single high
In week 16 against the Packers, the Vikings lined up in single-high and nine in the box to counter the Packers 21 personnel with a cut split to the left.
The Packers are running a sail concept to the right with fullback Danny Vitale coming out of the backfield on a corner route. The deep go route occupies the free safety with Vitale alone on the corner with Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks (No. 54). Rodgers throws a good pass, and it likely would’ve gone for a completion if Vitale hadn’t been held running out of the backfield.
One possible way that the 49ers can take advantage of the Vikings secondary is by getting into 21 or 22 personnel and lining up fullback Kyle Juszczyk in the backfield and running him on a leak route or sail concept. Ideally, the 49ers would like to get this match-up against linebacker Anthony Barr.
Juszczyk has had a number of catches like this out of the backfield, where he runs the leak route off play action. Just before the snap, the Steelers shift into a single high coverage, a favorable coverage for this play. Juszczyk runs out of the backfield and down the numbers away from the safety. The safety comes over anyways because the ball was a bit late being throw, but he snags it out of the air with two hands for the completion.
Another way to get a favorable match-up is possibly having Kittle run this concept out of the backfield, too, as they did here against the Rams in week six. Kittle was called upon when Juszczyk missed time due to a knee injury sustained in week five. Out of the backfield, Kittle is running a corner route similar to Vitale in the play above. The Rams linebackers lose sight of Kittle on the play-action, and he runs by them downfield, where he made four defenders miss tackles.
3. Pressure Kirk Cousins
Kurt Cousins’s overall passer rating is 106.7 per Pro Football Focus and has a quarterback grade of 88.5. His rating and grade take a dramatic drop when he’s under pressure. Under pressure, his passer rating falls to 87.6, and his overall player grade falls to 50.7.
It was below 50 before the game against the Saints in the wild card round but got a boost when he completed passes against the Saints interior pressure, like the one above. Cousins found Thielen for a gain of down the right sideline against the Saints midway through the third quarter.
The Saints only generated eight total pressures on the Vikings and are led by the tackles, who boast the highest grades of their entire offensive line for the season. Cousins has been sacked 26 times.
The 49ers need to generate pressure up the middle and use a variety of creeper pressures and tackle end stunts to get Bosa and Ford one-on-one with the Vikings interior. On the creeper pressures or simulated pressures, the 49ers have had success this season with disguising where the pressure comes from.
On this creeper, Dre Greenlaw replaces Solomon Thomas as a pass rusher. The rush forces Winston into a quicker throw that’s errant and picked off by Richard Sherman for a pick-six.
Another way defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has generated pressure is with fire zone blitzes. This might be a good way to get pressure up the middle as well on Cousins. In a fire zone blitz, the defense adds a fourth and fifth rusher to the mix while dropping another defensive lineman into a coverage zone. Here, the extra rushers are K’Waun Williams and Kwon Alexander. Both split the sack on Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
4. Stop the screen
An added layer to the play-action boot the Vikings run is the play-action boot screen throwback passes, and the 49ers haven’t really had to deal with those types of plays this season. The Vikings gained a lot of yards on those throws with Cook, and the 49ers struggled in the second half of the season against the screen, probably a result of not having Alexander in the lineup though the 49ers seemed to mostly clean up their issues with the opposing team screen games since then.
The Vikings take advantage of 2-high coverages by running these screens since the deep crossers on the boot roll out tend to draw the safeties away from the possible halfback screen, as they do here versus the Giants and Cowboys. The crossers automatically remove five intermediate and deep defenders, leaving the Vikings 3-vs-2 on the left for Cook, who gains 22 yards on the play.
The key to stopping the screen game starts upfront with the defensive line and is the same as stopping the boot action rollouts. The edges of the 49ers front need to stay disciplined and take an outside rush to funnel everything back inside and not get too far upfield chasing the quarterback.
On the play, the Rams try to run a slip screen to Todd Gurley. Bosa gets upfield in Goff’s face while Arik Armstead gets penetration but doesn’t get upfield when he sees Gurley trying to leak out on the screen. Instead, he expertly reads the play, stays square, and attacks the pass by batting it down incomplete. No excessive movements, no excessive reads, or letting the blockers wash him out.
On the previous play, another way to affect the outcome of the play is by getting pressure off the edge and not letting Cousins sell the boot. Saleh sends Williams on a nickel blitz off the edge into the potential rollout lane, and this forces Goff to pull up and get rid of the pass sooner than he wanted. The key is figuring out where to send the blitz from, but it appears that the Vikings do sell the run fake toward the strong side, so a blitz off the weak side can be very disruptive.
5. Get Raheem Mostert involved early and often
The 49ers offense just seems like it functions better with Raheem Mostert in the game running the ball than with Tevin Coleman. For this reason, they need to rely heavily on Mostert on early downs rather than Coleman. And while Shanahan’s offense has seen an uptick in gap scheme runs this season (power, counter, duo), they should stay committed to the wide zone as the Vikings had trouble containing the wide zone this season, particularly against the Packers.
Against the Vikings, the Packers ran the ball 65 times in two games for a total of 328 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. The Packers had seven runs of 10-plus yards in those games and 15 of those runs generated first downs.
Mostert has seven rushing touchdowns in the last six games. That, combined with the blocking of both Kittle and Juszczyk, the 49ers should be able to gash the Vikings for a few big runs. Outside of the Packers games, the Vikings have only allowed 32 runs of 10-plus yards, which, according to The Athletic’s Ben Fennell, is 3rd best in the league. They are not an otherwise easy group to run on.
The 49ers have had an extra week to prepare, and it’s difficult to imagine head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t have some sort of plan for the Vikings in his mind in case they were to face them. There are other aspects that I didn’t even touch on, such as going against the Vikings front that includes Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter, but I have no doubt Shanahan has a plan to slow them down as well.
The 49ers get some big names back this week that they haven’t had in recent weeks, and that bodes well for the defense in particular as Kwon Alexander, Jaquiski Tartt, and Dee Ford are all expected to play on Saturday and have been participants in all three days of practice this week. It sounds cliche, but the 49ers defense can and should be able to limit the Vikings offense and hit the big plays on offense to win this game.