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49ers Defensive Focus: Stopping Kirk & the Vikings Play Action Game

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Dalvin Cook and the ground game get all of the attention, but the Niners need to focus on stopping Kirk Cousins & the vaunted Minnesota play-action scheme

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You like that? Niners fans seemed to like the idea of hosting Kirk Cousin’s Vikings at Levi’s this Saturday, but let’s pump the brakes for a minute. At the beginning of this season, if you had told me that Kirk Cousins would be playing like a top-five NFL QB and taking Minnesota to the second round of the playoffs, I would have told you to take off your Vikings hat and go home, because you’re drunk. Hell, if you even mention Kirk as a top-five QB after that wild-card win, you’ll get laughed out of the room to chants of his 0-9 Monday Night Football record.

The fact of the matter is, the 49ers have a big test in front of them on Saturday afternoon. While stopping running back, Dalvin Cook seems to be the priority for most opposing defensive coordinators, and rightfully so, its Cousins that makes this offense formidable. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Kirk Cousins finished 3rd across the league in Completion % Above Expectation, 3rd in Pro Football Focus’ Adjusted Completion % for QBs with at least 350 attempts, and 4th in PFF passing grade. Cousins posted the best PFF grade across all QBs on Wild-Card weekend, coming in clutch for the Vikings in an upset win at New Orleans. So much for not being able to handle the big moment.

Stopping Cousins starts with the Niners’ front-seven. With Dee Ford slated to be back in the lineup after missing a few weeks due to a hamstring injury, the defensive line will be at full strength for the first time since Week 11. Kwon Alexander returned to the practice field for the first time since tearing his pectoral in Week 9 and will be ready to take command of this top-ranked unit once again. The coverage prowess of Alexander (PFF’s 7th ranked coverage LB through Week 9) and Fred Warner (17th in the same ranking through Week 17) will be necessary to stop the Vikings deadly play-action game. Kirk Cousins ranks first in the NFL in passer rating off of play-action (min.100 attempts), per PFF.

Per Football Outsiders, the 49ers ranked 11th in rush defense DVOA (Defensive Adjusted Value over Average) and 2nd against the pass during the regular season. They were 2nd in adjusted sack rate, but just 13th in adjusted line yards, which measures defensive line efficiency against the run. Long story short, the front four is dominant at getting after the QB, not the best (but not bad) at defending the run.

The run defense will have to step up in a big way to counter the Vikings, who run the ball at the second-highest rate in the league, just behind Baltimore & one spot ahead of our own Niners. If the front-seven is up to the challenge and able to bottle up Dalvin Cook early, expect the Vikings to start to abandon the run game as the Niners’ offense puts points on the board against Xavier Rhodes and the banged-up Vikings pass defense.

The Vikings will be without corners Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes, a huge blow to their secondary. The vaunted Niners defensive line will be thrilled to finally pin their ears back and get after Cousins once they no longer fear the threat of the run game, as the Niners jump out to a big lead. Oh, and by the way, the Vikings rank 25th in PFF pass-block grade & 23rd in ESPN’s pass-block win rate. Cue Nick Bosa & Dee Ford off the edge. They should have a field day. Hey Dee Ford, how about a strip-sack return for a TD and a little playoff redemption for jumping offsides last year? Too soon?

On the outside, Richard Sherman & Emmanuel Moseley will have their hands full with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Assuming Robert Saleh chooses to ride the hot-hand with Moseley, Ahkello Witherspoon should remain the first corner off the bench with K’waun Williams operating in the slot; our own Kyle Posey took a deep dive into the defensive backs for this matchup earlier this week.

Thielen was brilliant in the Vikings’ wild-card upset (7/129), but I expect him to get a heavy dose of PFF’s top-ranked corner, Richard Sherman. Effectively taking Thielen out of the game will be a tall task, but Sherman has been unstoppable all year. He has allowed only 27 receptions, 227 yards, 1 TD & a 52% completion percentage when targeted. Yes, 227 yards allowed for the entire season. Taysom Hill, a QB, has more receiving yards than that this year.

The 49ers will have to pull out all of the stops on defense to slow down Kirk Cousins and the surging Vikings offense - I bet they rise to the task. Once the play-action game proves to falter without an open Thielen and a crowded middle zone thanks to the speedy LBs, the deadly 49er pass rush will start to eat up the porous Vikings O-line. Especially with the Niners offense taking the pressure off by exploiting a depleted Vikings secondary. Dee Ford and Nick Bosa will be living in the backfield, forcing Cousins to make poor decisions leading to turnovers. It all starts with the run defense, and Kwon Alexander will have this front-seven ready to stifle Dalvin Cook at the line of scrimmage.

Cousins may have had a career year, and now a tough road playoff win under his belt, but he hasn’t seen a dominant defense like San Francisco just yet.