The divisional showdown between San Francisco and the Vikings should be a fascinating chess match between offensive wunderkind Kyle Shanahan and wily veteran defensive guru Mike Zimmer.
A lot of writers have slagged the 49ers for not having a proper #1 wide receiver — a dominating, tall speedster like Julio Jones who the quarterback can count on for big plays. Some call it the offense’s biggest weakness.
I think that weakness is one of the team’s biggest strengths, especially in the playoffs. And Saturday’s matchup with Minnesota illustrates why.
The battle of New Orleans
In Minnesota’s Wildcard round matchup, the Saints boasted a legendary quarterback and two stars who are more talented than anyone on the 49ers, aside from TE George Kittle: Michael Thomas, the best wide receiver in football, and Alvin Kamara, a great dual-threat running back and pass catcher.
Zimmer was able to defang him Thomas with bracket coverage, which limited him to 70 yards on eight targets (7 receptions), and the Vikings squelched Kamara (21 yards on seven carries, plus 34 receiving yards on nine targets for eight catches).
Note that each star caught 7 of 8 targets; they were just forced underneath and denied yards after catch. That’s the mark of a solid, well-executed game plan. You can’t completely shut down players of that talent, but you can predict how they’ll be used and contain them.
Eggs in one basket
There are two main practical problems with big stars, besides making it easier to scheme against you. They’re expensive, so you lose talent at other positions, usually wide receiver. And they make you vulnerable to injury.
San Francisco has lots of injuries, like all football teams, but losing Emmanuel Sanders and Matt Brieda for a few games each was not devastating because there were multiple talented alternatives available.
The Vikings, however, have only two dangerous receivers: Stefon Diggs (who missed three days of practice this week with an unspecified illness) and Adam Thielen (questionable after getting cleated in practice.) They will almost certainly play Saturday, at less than full strength, but no one thinks that in their absence Laquon Treadwell or Bisi Johnson would step up and keep the offense rolling.
The Hydra attack
San Francisco, on the other hand, has a deep roster of explosive skill players. The team has lost four top talents — RB Jerick McKinnon and WRs Trent Taylor, Jalen Hurd, and Marquise Goodwin — but Brieda, Raheem Mostert, and Jeff Wilson Jr. have all stepped up at running back. (Let’s not talk about Tevin Coleman.)
It took a while for Shanahan to settle on a core group of receivers, but the trio of Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel, and Kendrick Bourne fit perfectly with star TE Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk to form a 5-headed hydra monster.
All five are willing and effective blockers, all can catch a deep pass, all except Bourne have rushing yards this year, and Sanders threw a crucial 35-yard touchdown against the Saints.
It’s not just that these guys can come off the bench in case of injury. They are all on the field at the same time in passing situations, and four of them are on running downs. The bench guys, Richie James Jr., and Dante Pettis, are legitimately dangerous in their own right, which isn’t very common for 4th and 5th receivers.
A numbers game
The Vikings have a deeply talented defense, but they don’t have five strong coverage guys who can also stop the run on first and second down — even when they’re fully healthy.
And they’re not anywhere near fully healthy, which is predictable come playoff time. After 17 games, injuries are pretty much a given. Minnesota has more than most.
Minnesota’s two best CBs — MacKensie Alexander and Mike Hughes — have both gone on the Injured Reserve list in the last week, and S Jaryon Kearse is out for this game with a knee injury.
Since those three represented the Vikings’ first-, second- and third-string nickelbacks, there’s an obvious hole there for Shanahan to attack. Most likely, backup safety Andrew Sendejo — cut mid-season by a woeful Eagles secondary — will fill in the slot, as he did against New Orleans. To be fair, he did surprisingly well.
At this point, Minnesota’s best players in coverage are middle linebacker Eric Kendricks and safeties Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith. The front line is strong, but the middle of the field should offer a lot of opportunities for Shanahan’s schemes. With all of these holes, Harris will have to hang back deep, and two high coverage might be necessary.
Kendricks, who excels in shutting down tight ends, will likely cover Kittle, but Shanahan is great at moving his star TE around — to the slot or backfield, in motion, even split wide — to get a better matchup. Zimmer runs a lot of pattern matching zone coverage, which should make that task easier.
CB Xavier Rhodes is struggling through ankle and shoulder injuries that have left him a shadow of his 2017 Pro Bowl form; he’s another big target. The other starting corner, Trae Waynes, has never really lived up to his first-round pick potential either but is probably the team’s best surviving corner.
If the Niners had a WR1 they depended on, like Michael Thomas, Waynes would probably cover him, bracketing with Harris (who has six interceptions this year). But as it stands, the Niners will have four pass targets (besides Kittle) with at most two safeties to cover them.
One caution here — MacKensie Alexander and Mike Hughes were out against New Orleans, too, and the Vikings did well at shutting down the Saints’ potent attack. Safety Jayron Kearse is the only secondary player from that game who is out Saturday. Rhodes and Sendejo did much better than expected, and that could happen again.
As Kyle Posey detailed Friday, though, Shanahan has had success in direct matchups against Zimmer before, and he should be able to exploit the vulnerabilities that Sean Payton couldn’t.
The bottom line
A strong WR1 is essential — for your fantasy football team. In real world, playoff football, they are optional at best, and against a good play caller such as Kyle Shanahan, they’re a liability.