Monday night felt like a prime bounce-back spot for the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers looked to get right against a 2-4 Minnesota Vikings team with its fair share of struggles, including being without wide receiver Justin Jefferson against the 49ers vaunted defense.
Then Kirk Cousins threw for 378 yards, with Jordan Addison collecting 123 himself, leading the Vikings' offense to just enough to out-score a 49ers offense that failed to put up at least 20 points for the second consecutive week after five weeks of scoring at least 30, as the 49ers fell to the Vikings 22-17 in Minnesota.
The consecutive losses have now raised more questions than answers for a team that just two weeks ago was undefeated. However, for the first time in a long while, the majority of those questions surround the 49ers defense:
Loser: Cover 0 on third-and-6 with 17 seconds left on the clock in the first half and Minnesota out of timeouts
It’s the play that permanently swung momentum in Minnesota’s direction.
With the Vikings up only three with the ball and driving at its 40-yard-line before the half, the 49ers showed blitz with Tashaun Gipson as the lone safety. Steve Wilks sent seven at Cousins, leaving four back to defend three Vikings receivers. The two receivers to Cousins’ left pulled Gipson toward the middle of the field, leaving Charvarius Ward one-on-one over the top with Jordan Addison.
Ward - having ripped the ball from Addison for an interception in the first quarter - went for a second instead of knocking the ball down to force a punt. The tables turned with Addison not only taking the ball from Ward but turning upfield and scoring a touchdown, giving Minnesota a nine-point halftime lead.
Had Wilks not blitzed and kept a safety over the top to prevent the big play either:
- Cousins opts not to throw into double coverage, and Minnesota, at best, punts or, at worst, kicks a field goal to go up six at the half.
- Cousins forces into double-coverage, leading to either an incomplete pass or, at worst, a completion with 11 seconds left with the cover safety making a tackle, possibly running the half out.
Ward should have made the play, but Wilks put him in an unfavorable situation when it was utterly unnecessary.
Loser: 49ers pass rush
I mentioned Monday morning that Cousins had the second-highest passer rating under pressure and that the 49ers needed sacks on Monday night.
The 49ers finished with 18 pressures - according to NFL Next Gen Stats - on Monday night, sacking Cousins zero times. Monday night was the first time since Week 17 of last season the 49ers’ defense couldn’t generate a sack when it could get to Jarrett Stidham in the 49ers’ 37-34 win over Las Vegas.
Cousins stood firm in the pocket all night - like on his 60-yard touchdown to Addison when Nick Bosa was in his face - and completed 35-of-45 passes without the 49ers’ pass rush forcing a negative play.
Loser: Third down defense
Minnesota converted eight of its 13 third down attempts on Monday night, converting at least one on each of its five scoring drives.
Addison’s 60-yard score came on a third down, but a couple of other significant third down conversions led to Minnesota points. Minnesota faced a third-and-12 at its 11-yard-line on its second drive, threatened with consecutive three-play drives to open the game. Cousins found an open TJ Hockenson in the middle of the field for a gain of 16. Minnesota would score its first touchdown seven plays later, with the 49ers unable to end the drive early.
Minnesota faced a second-and-24 after consecutive offensive penalties on the next drive, but a KJ Osborn reception made it third-and-10. Cam Akers would take a screen pass 30 yards inside the 49ers’ five-yard-line on the third down to make a much more manageable field goal for Greg Joseph five plays later.
Minnesota would later convert a third-and-8 on its final scoring drive, kicking a field goal to go up 22-14 in the third quarter. The 49ers allowed at least ten extra points on drives where Minnesota faced a third-and-long, another failure of Wilks’ defense on Monday night.
Winner: 49ers goal line defense
While there was plenty of negative on the defense for the 49ers, it held when its back was against the wall. Twice, the Vikings’ offense had the ball inside the 49ers’ two-yard-line, and it could only walk away with six points on the two drives.
Halfway through the second quarter, Minnesota got down to the 49ers two-yard-line on the Akers 30-yard screen pass with a chance to take a 14-0 lead. Kevin Givens tackled Alexander Mattison for a loss on second down, and Cousins would miss an open Addison on second down. Fred Warner would then end the drive, batting a pass intended for Brandon Powell, holding Minnesota to a field goal.
On Minnesota’s opening drive of the second half, with a chance to extend its lead to 16, Deommodore Lenoir was called for a pass interference in the end zone, setting the Vikings up at the goal line.
Cousins looked for a quick score, trying to sneak in on first down, but again, Warner stopped the score by falling from the heavens to stop the Vikings’s quarterback. Minnesota was called for a false start, and the drive sputtered from there with a Joseph field goal extending the Vikings lead to 12.
If either of those drives results in a touchdown, the 49ers offense might not have a chance to win at the end of the game. We’ll call it a ray of sunshine on an otherwise gloomy night for the 49ers defense.
Loser: Quality control
With the defense having an off-night, the offense ran flawlessly, right?
The issues started inconspicuously, with Brock Purdy taking a delay of game on a third down in the second quarter. It ultimately hurt the drive, with Purdy hitting Brandon Aiyuk to convert on the third-and-7, sparking a 12-play touchdown-scoring drive to put the 49ers on the board.
Just a blip on the radar! Nothing to worry about, right?
With the clock approaching the two-minute warning and the offense driving, Purdy stepped into his spot in shotgun formation with the 49ers at the Minnesota 25-yard-line on third-and-1. The clock was running with Purdy ready to take the snap at 2:05, but it ran to the warning, and the teams went to their respective sidelines.
Except Minnesota had eight men on the field. Not 10. Not nine. But eight. That’s 73 percent of the recommended number of players on the field at one time. And instead of taking advantage, Purdy opted to take the clock down to the break.
So surely, the 49ers were ready coming out of the two-minute warning it so badly wanted to get to?
Nope! Kyle Shanahan had to burn a timeout out of the break because the play clock was approaching zero.
Again, the 49ers escaped unharmed, converting the third down and scoring a few plays later, but mistakes like those cost teams ballgames, and a team of the quality of San Francisco definitely shouldn’t be making these mistakes.
Loser: fourth quarter Brock Purdy
Like last week in Cleveland, the 49ers were in a position to win on Monday night despite all the issues from earlier in the game. Jake Moody hit a 55-yard field goal to get the 49ers within five early in the fourth quarter. Minnesota would respond with a four-minute drive ending in a punt, giving Purdy and the 49ers offense the ball down five with nine minutes left.
After a 16-yard completion to George Kittle, the 49ers faced a third-and-1 at midfield, with Purdy unable to get a push on a sneak attempt. Shanahan opted to call the sneak again, this time successfully on fourth down, giving San Francisco a new set of downs.
Shanahan looked to get deeper into Minnesota territory, drawing up a deep route over the middle for Jauan Jennings 20 yards downfield. Either Purdy expected Jennings to be more in the middle of the field, or he completely missed his receiver, but the ball ended up in the hands of Camryn Bynum.
Minnesota failed to cash in on the pick, though, missing a 50-yard field goal with 1:11 left in the game, failing to extend its lead to eight. The drive started with a Harrison Smith pass breakup before Purdy found McCloud on consecutive passes. With the ball in Minnesota territory, facing a second down with 33 seconds left, Purdy aimed for McCloud again, forcing the ball into coverage with Bynum once more coming down with Purdy’s pass, putting the final nail in the coffin.
The young quarterback had not one but two chances to win the game for the 49ers. One touchdown or two field goal drives would have done the job, but Purdy faltered on both chances to prevent consecutive losses.