Following the first loss of the season, San Francisco gets an extra day to prepare for their upcoming opponent. Here’s a look at how the Niners roster stacks up against the Vikings before their Monday Night showdown in Minnesota. DraftKings Sportsbook has the 49ers as 7-point favorites.
SF O SKILL (QB/WR) VS. MIN SECONDARY
Minnesota looks like a much-improved defense through six games compared to last year’s unit, which gave up the second-most yards through the air. Safety Harrison Smith is still the uncontested leader of this D, especially in the secondary. At almost 35 years old, Smith is still capable of making some splash plays and his impact was most evident in their week four victory over Carolina. Smith had 14 tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
Only one defensive back blitzes more than Smith (teammate Josh Metellus, who lines up in nickel or in the box, has more). From a coverage standpoint, it’s no longer the strong suit of the six-time pro bowler.
But new defensive coordinator Brian Flores has put him in positions to be disruptive, hence why he has logged more snaps in the box compared to a deep safety alignment. His running mate in the backend is Camryn Bynum, who has already been targeted in coverage more this year than in 2022 and has allowed 87.5% of those targets to be completed.
The 49ers should have a nice rebound game against this secondary, even if Deebo Samuel can’t go. Brandon Aiyuk should quickly redevelop the connection with Purdy that was missing at times against Cleveland and could be in line for a huge day. Several receivers have had big games against the Minnesota coverage unit, such as Keenan Allen (18 catches, 215 yards), Devonta Smith (4, 141), and Adam Thielen (7, 76). Aiyuk will be shadowed by a subpar corner group, led by two new starters; off-season addition Byron Murphy (51.7 PFF coverage grade) and second-year pro Akayleb Evans, who is listed as questionable (68.4).
SF O COMBO (RB/TE) vs. MIN 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
As mentioned, we will see a good amount of Smith and Metellus in the box. The Vikings have a new starting linebacker group as well, featuring Jordan Hicks and rookie Ivan Pace Jr. Hicks is producing his best season since the first few years of his career in Philadelphia, posting an 80.1 coverage grade (9th among LBs with 100 snaps) and 80.3 overall grade (11th).
Pace Jr. has been quite the surprise. The undersized pass rusher went undrafted out of the University of Cincinnati but has found a home in Flores’ heavy blitzing scheme. His 88.8 pass-rush grade is the best on the team and fourth among all off-ball linebackers. Listed at only 5’10, 231 lbs, Pace Jr. has held his own against NFL offensive lines in the run game, too.
If Christian McCaffrey can’t go, this matchup on paper is maybe a bit closer. But I still believe it would behoove the 49ers offense to utilize the mismatch George Kittle provides more than they did against the Browns. Hicks and Pace have yet to be tested against an offense like Shanahan’s that aims to take advantage of linebackers by creating confusion in pre-snap movement.
SF O LINE vs. MIN D LINE
Danielle Hunter is tied for the league lead in sacks (8) this season. Despite the below-average PFF grade, Hunter can be a difficult matchup for offensive tackles, possessing a monster frame (6’5, 263) and incredible speed (4.57 40) for an edge rusher.
It isn’t a bad unit - their pass-rush-win-rate of 45% is 14th in the league. But, outside of Hunter and Pace, the Vikings are still searching for an impact from their other defensive linemen.
Former Saints’ first-round pick Marcus Davenport was the big fish this off-season for Minnesota, but he has hit IR with an ankle injury and will be inactive for this contest. D.J. Wonnum has developed into a decent run-stopper on the opposite edge. On the interior, journeyman Jonathan Bullard has shown some promise against the run, too, posting a top-five run-stop win rate among defensive tackles.
But this really needs to be a group that San Francisco dominates. Coming off their collective worst outing of 2023, there should be some cause for concern about how the offensive line performs the remainder of the season and more importantly, the post-season.
Trent Williams looked mortal for once against Myles Garret. The interior combination showed signs of struggle. On paper, this should be a generous rebound for all five of the starters, they just need to come out and show it.
MIN O LINE vs. SF D LINE
I wrestled for a long time about who gets the nod in this matchup. For the first time this season (and maybe the last), the advantage here could go to the opposing team. The Vikings have one of the most underrated offensive lines in football. As a unit, PFF grades them as the highest run-blocking team and the third-highest pass-blocking team. ESPN marks them as the sixth-best group in pass-block-win-rate. Perhaps it’s the bad start and record through the first six games, but they are worthy of more attention from the national media.
Christian Darrisaw has developed into an all-pro left tackle in his third season. This year he has the highest PFF grade of any offensive tackle and the second-highest pass-blocking grade. He has allowed 1 sack, 9 pressures, and 6 QB hits so far this year. The other bookend, right tackle Brian O’Neill, has the sixth-highest PFF grade and highest run-blocking grade. He is first among all tackles with at least 100 snaps in ESPN's pass block win rate.
Christian Darrisaw (71) blocked THREE separate defenders to the floor on this play!pic.twitter.com/Qe7ngU9XRw— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) October 16, 2023
This Monday Night matchup is worth watching for the battle in the trenches alone. The slight edge stays with San Francisco, despite some of the analytics pointing the other way. The 49ers still own the number one pass-rushing group but don’t expect their most productive outing.
Although the run defense has been below expectations, they’re still ninth in run-stop win rate and have allowed only 80 yards a game on the ground at four yards a carry. Javon Hargrave and the rest of the interior defensive linemen haven’t graded out as great run stuffers, so they may struggle again versus Minnesota’s G-C-G combo of Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, and Ed Ingram, all of whom are enjoying career-bests this year.
MIN O COMBO vs. SF 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS
T.J. Hockenson is tied for the league lead in targets and receptions for tight ends. With Justin Jefferson headed to short-term IR, Hockenson is the alpha in the Minnesota passing game. He should see his fair share of opportunities through the air and poses a difficult matchup for most linebackers and safeties. Most.
Fortunately, San Francisco still has Fred Warner. Hopefully, Dre Greenlaw can return as well as his absence was certainly felt in the loss to Cleveland, as the Browns rushed for 160 yards.
Minnesota does some similar things to Cleveland on the ground, but not with the same consistency. In back-to-back weeks against the Chargers and the Panthers, the team had over 130 yards and averaged more than five yards per carry.
But in their other four contests, they’ve averaged less than 50 yards and only 2.8 yards per carry. Alexander Mattison, who was tasked with carrying the load after the departure of Dalvin Cook in August, has been underwhelming, averaging less than four yards a carry and having not yet found the endzone. The Vikings made a trade for Cam Akers a few weeks ago to help light a spark but he hasn’t found any success in a limited role behind Mattison.
MIN O SKILL vs. SF SECONDARY
Obviously, no one wishes injury to opposing teams and football is much better when Justin Jefferson is on the field and healthy. He will be back this season after dealing with the hamstring injury, so I don’t feel bad saying we should thank our lucky stars that San Francisco doesn’t have to face Jefferson this Monday. Last season’s AP Offensive Player of the Year is rarely contained by opposing defenses and provides a serious mismatch against almost any corner in the league.
Without him, the Niners' focus will likely shift to stopping Hockenson and then shadowing the receiving corps. First-rounder Jordan Addison is third on the team in targets and receptions and has made some acrobatic catches already in his young career. He’s built a good connection with Kirk Cousins and has found the endzone four times. K.J. Osborn is bumped up to the second starter and we may end up seeing more 12 personnel from the Minnesota offense, as the only other receiver to garner snaps through six games is 5 ‘8 Brandon Powell.
Kyle Shanahan is obviously familiar with Kirk Cousins from his time in Washington, so you know the coaching staff won’t take this matchup lightly. Cousins has become the benchmark for the debate between great quarterback play versus positive performance from a friendly system.
That isn’t an insult! He has shown at times he can elevate the offense around him and has pulled off a few upsets and comebacks that should be respected. Even with his infamous primetime drawbacks, the Niners secondary will have to be on their A-game against the Vikings air attack Monday night.