The San Francisco 49ers had the week off, as they earned a bye after beating the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17. The Wildcard round of the NFL Playoffs still was significant, as the team had to find out who their opponent would be in the Divisional round. Here are our takeaways from the Minnesota Vikings win over the New Orleans Saints, and what it means for San Francisco.
All-in on Adam
It was evident that the Vikings were going to play through Adam Thielen early in the game. Thielen made play after play for Minnesota. The early fumble did not slow him down. I’ve been in the camp that Thielen is a top-five-ish wideout in the league the past couple of years, and Sunday against the Saints showed why. He finished with seven catches for 129 yards on nine targets. New Orleans’ stud cornerback Marshon Lattimore didn’t have an answer for Thielen in coverage, who the Vikings do a great job of moving around. They’ll do everything from taking shots down the field with Thielen to using him on short routes over the middle. The playoffs are a time to get the ball to your best player, and Minnesota made it work.
The 49ers’ secondary will have their hands full. The team has two top-five receivers in the last month faced Julio Jones went for 13/134/2 against San Francisco, while Michael Thomas went for 11/134/1. Will the 49ers have better luck this time around? They will if the pass rush comes alive. Speaking of...
You better block somebody
I was trying to keep an eye on Minnesota’s offensive line against the Saints front four. New Orleans owned this matchup. Cam Jordan was eating right tackle Riley Reiff’s lunch. Jordan finished with a sack, and a quarterback hit. The Saints finished the game with three sacks, five tackles for loss, and a couple of other quarterback hits.
That’s great news for the 49ers, especially as they get a few reinforcements back. If Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford, and Jaquiski Tartt play, that could give Robert Saleh confidence to dial up more blitzes as the secondary is at full strength, and Alexander is a terrific blitzer. It also provides all of your pass rushers a 1-on-1. The Saints have an excellent front seven, and they’re a couple of notches below the 49ers. The Saints winning this matchup in the matter that they did was a great sign for San Francisco.
The Vikings were one of three teams to run the ball in the regular season more than they threw it. The other two teams were San Francisco and Baltimore. It was a tale of two halves for Minnesota on the ground. Dalvin Cook at 84. yards rushing at halftime. He finished the game with 94 rushing yards. For the game, Cook had 31 touches. As mentioned above with Thielen, Minnesota isn’t playing around when it comes to getting their top guys touches. Cook had a 22-yard run and a 19-yard reception. He’s fast, strong, and has great balance, which allows him to run through arm tackles.
The 49ers cannot let Cook get going. Winning in the trenches will be the difference in the game, whether that’s one of the defensive linemen winning a 1-on-1 battle, or them eating blocks so the linebackers can flow freely to corral Cook. The Vikings like to run the ball from 12 personnel (50%) and run a lot of wide zone. That plays into the hands of the 49ers, as Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa do a great job of forcing runs back inside to the rest of the defense.
Coverage busts everywhere
I’ve seen more coverage busts from the Vikings in a few games than I can remember in entire seasons from a Mike Zimmer defense. That was on full display again Sunday. The Saints had receivers running open early, and often, they just weren’t able to capitalize on scoring opportunities. The Vikings are a heavy quarters team, and while that’s generally a coverage that prevents the deep ball, there are route concepts where you can manipulate defenders and take advantage down the field. That’s exactly what Sean Payton did. The Saints had seven passing plays of 14 or more yards.
Since Week 10, only three teams had more explosive passing plays than the 49ers. Kyle Shanahan had to be salivating watching this game, knowing what he can do.
Help us out, Rich
Deonte Harris is a sensational return man. Richie James isn’t quite on his level, but he’s far from a scrub. The 49ers must take advantage in the return game. Harris came close to breaking one a couple of times. He finished the day averaging 11 yards on four punt returns. His long was 17, so he was consistently in the double-digits. Harris returned one kick 54 yards. He averaged 33 yards per return on four kick returns.
Minnesota is 20th in DVOA on kick returns and 30th on punt returns. San Francisco is tenth in DVOA on kick returns and eighth on punt returns. The 49ers have to find a way to steal yardage and flip the field when the Vikings are kicking. Special Teams and hidden yardage become even more important this time of year.