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Five keys to a dominant 49ers defensive performance over the Vikings

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San Francisco put together an impressive game-plan

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The 49ers won their first playoff game since January 12, 2014, by beating the Minnesota Vikings 27-10 on Saturday afternoon in front of a raucous crowd in Santa Clara. It was a defensive performance reminiscent of the early season performances: turnovers, a lot of sacks, a “don’t break, don’t even bend” attitude. The defense led the way with six sacks and an interception and only allowed the Vikings to gain seven first downs.

The team was well-rested after a much-earned bye week and returned three defensive starters to the field: safety Jaquiski Tartt, defensive end Dee Ford, and linebacker Kwon Alexander. Of the bye week and it impacts on the game, Fred Warner said, “It was huge, I think for the entire team. Getting guys healthy, we got some key pieces back on defense. We were fresh. We went out there with the right mindset.”

On offense, the 49ers ran the ball 47 times for 186 yards and two touchdowns on the back of Tevin Coleman, who had 22 carries, 105 yards, and two touchdowns. Defensively, quarterback Kirk Cousins was held to a net 126 yards while Dalvin Cook was held to 18 yards rushing on nine carries.

Aside from a long 41-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to receiver Stefon Diggs, the Vikings were unable to execute the components of their offense that gave them the most success this season: edge runs, play action, and the screen game.

1. Stopping the edge runs

Against the Saints, the Vikings had 11 rushing attempts that went for five or more yards with four of those going for 11 yards or more. On Saturday against the 49ers defense, they had ten rushing attempts for 21 yards, the longest of which was a six-yard run by Cook in the fourth quarter.

Against the Saints, the Vikings were able to out gap the Saints to the edge, who were never able to reset the line of scrimmage. The edge setter forces Cook back inside, but the Vikings offensive line easily gets to the second level and seals off the rest of the pursuit defenders trying to rally to the ball carrier.

The 49ers tactic was to slant to the strong side on edge runs, which gave them a gap advantage that kept linebackers free to roam and clean up.

The Vikings are running a similar toss play to the boundary as the play above against the Saints. Instead of penetrating the gaps in front of them, the 49ers defensive line to the left side slants across their gaps to the edge. Sheldon Day does not allow himself to get pinned inside, and Dee Ford’s speed allows him to cut off the toss running lane with corner Richard Sherman also out there.

The key disrupter, however, is Day (No. 96). His gap penetration into the B-gap doesn’t allow the fullback to reach the second level since right guard Josh Kline was unable to wash him out of the play. The fullback CJ Ham would’ve been responsible for leading up into the hole against Dre Greenlaw, but he’s never able to get there because of Day. Cook cuts back inside where the 49ers defense rallies led by Nick Bosa, who came down the line to make the stop.

2. Stopping play action

Another aspect of the Vikings offense they were going to need to be sound on was stopping the Vikings on play action. On the season, Cousins boasted a 129.2 passer rating on play-action with 14 touchdown passes. On play action in this game, Cousins was 6-for-6 but only accumulated 18 yards, and zero touchdown passes with a passer rating of 79.2 on those throws per Pro Football Focus.

The danger coming into this game against the Vikings was that the 49ers would need to make adjustments to counter the naked roll-outs that devastated them against the Rams in week 16. They made adjustments in that game in the second half, but the Rams did the bulk of their damage and scored points off that action in the first half.

For the 49ers, it would be imperative to contain the ability of Cousins to roll out and find open receivers. This meant that not crashing inside on the roll outside and instead take an outside contain rush to force Cousins to find his short outlet.

Cousins didn’t try a naked boot pass until late in the third quarter and defensive end Nick Bosa nearly came away with the sack if not for a quick throw by Cousins to Kyle Rudolph underneath as his outlet. Bosa follows the path of the offensive lineman but doesn’t get inside. Instead, he sees the rollout and immediately sprints upfield to cut off Cousins’ ability to boot out. Cousins immediately locate Rudolph, but they only gained one yard on the play.

3. Stopping the screen game

The Vikings were very successful with the screen pass this season, often generating 15-25 yards per pass on a variety of screens. And it was an area the 49ers had struggled with since week eight when the Cardinals gashed them for several long screens.

The Rams did as well in week 16. The Vikings screen game, in the Bill Walsh/Mike Shanahan/Gary Kubiak/Kyle Shanahan lineage, is very nuanced, like in the play above, that uses play-action boot to roll out the quarterback before throwing back to the running back. The play moves defenders away from the point of attack and gives the Vikings a blocking advantage downfield.

However, as with every facet of the game on Saturday, the 49ers played sound and stayed disciplined while filling the alley and clogging running lanes for Cook. On the day, the Vikings attempted four screen passes and gained just six total yards (gains of 5, 4, -1, -2 yards).

Here, the 49ers defense clogs the middle of the field while the screen develops. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day gets penetration but does not aggressively pursue Cousins upfield with the rest of the defensive line. Meanwhile, linebacker Dre Greenlaw outruns the blocker to the point of attack, ducks around them, and gets in on the stop as Cook looks to run. Earl Mitchell, Sheldon Day, and Dre Greenlaw are all behind the blockers and make the stop for a two-yard loss.

4. Dominant defensive line

The 49ers got a much-needed boost when Dee Ford returned to the line-up and came in to rush the quarterback on passing downs. Ford missed weeks 12-17, and in those weeks, the 49ers defensive line recorded only nine sacks, but that is heavily skewed toward the week 12 game against Green Bay when the defensive line recorded five of those sacks. Over the last five games, they recorded four more sacks.

Frequently, they were unable to generate pressure enough to affect opposing quarterbacks in Ford’s absence, despite Bosa still being able to generate a fair amount of pressure.

Against Minnesota, the recorded six total sacks. The boost that the defensive line got was evident from the start. The defense generated 23 total pressures (six sacks, three hits, 14 hurries) with Ford’s return.

Ford’s presence was felt early on in their six sack performance. The wide alignment of the pass rush in sub-packages and the space it creates gives the 49ers the advantage because they can often generate 1-on-1 match-ups with the offensive linemen, and more often than not, they win those reps.

The result is that blockers cannot get over to assist with double teams, allowing the 49ers pass rushers to effectively collapse the pocket around Cousins and prevent him from stepping up or escaping to scramble.

5. Richard Sherman’s interception

The play of the game came on defense when cornerback Richard Sherman intercepted Cousins. The turnover led to a 49ers touchdown drive on the next series and sealed their victory right then because it was apparent the Vikings were not going to be able to do anything for the rest of the game.

Sherman is matched against receiver Adam Thielen under a disguised 2-high coverage shell. Thielen is running an in-breaking route where he says, “I needed to cross his face.” “It was completely my fault. I didn’t cross his face, and obviously [Vikings QB Kurt] Cousins trusted me to win on that route and make a play on the ball. I didn’t do that.”

He took an inside release against Sherman and tried to give a quick outside move before settling and waiting for Cousins’ pass to arrive instead of fighting to gain separation. Sherman mirrored him every step of the way and stepped in front to pick the pass off.

After the game, Sherman stated that “Yeah, we were in man. It was third down. He gave me an inside release. Gave me a little bit too much at the top of the route. I knew what the route was. I beat him to the spot. [Minnesota Vikings QB] Kirk [Cousins] threw a very catchable ball, appreciate it, and I was able to make the play.”

OUTLOOK

The 49ers move on to play the Packers in the NFC championship game on Sunday. The last time the two teams met, the 49ers won 37-8 on the back of George Kittle and the running game, and they’ll likely look to do the same. The Packers just held on to beat the Seahawks in Green Bay, setting up this rematch of 13-3 teams. On offense, the 49ers should be able to move the ball as well as they did in the first meeting. On defense, the 49ers played without Ford and Alexander in that week 12 game. They’ll be healthy and ready for this game.

The Packers haven’t lost a game since that week 12 meeting, setting up what will be an interesting rematch between two teams with similar offenses, coaching staff who all worked together at some point in their careers, and a renewed rivalry between two historic franchises.

They’ve also been involved in some iconic playoff games, everything from Terrell Owens catch in the 1998 wild card round, to Colin Kaepernick’s historic night in the 2012 divisional playoffs, to the very next season in Green Bay where the 49ers won again in sub-zero weather in the wild card round on a last-second field goal.

The 49ers will need another near-flawless performance on both sides of the ball, but don’t expect a blowout. If history is any guide, quite the opposite will happen.