It’s human nature to take what you saw last and act as if that’s the only thing that transpired. When looking back at the San Francisco 49ers defense and how they performed against the Minnesota Vikings, it’s impossible to forget the final play of the first half. How could you?
On the third play of the game, 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward bullied Vikings receiver Jordan Addison and snatched the ball away from him for an interception. On the Niners final play of the first half, Ward saw a sure-fire interception go through his hands. This time, it was Addison who wound up with the ball, before racing 60 yards for a touchdown.
During his postgame press conference, Nick Bosa said, “it feels a little different. We’re usually a rush-four team. but....I don’t know.”
The decision to blitz resulted in the worst possible outcome. The play-call itself never stood a chance to succeed. Wilks sent six rushers, with a seventh defender “hugging” the running back. That defender, Talanoa Hufanga, was caught in no man’s land as the running back went to the other side of the line of scrimmage to block. So Hufanga neither blitzed nor was in a position to cover.
Bosa walked tight end T.J. Hockenson back into Kirk Cousins’ lap. No other pass rusher came close to winning their 1-on-1 rep. If one of the defensive linemen won or Ward catches the pass, we’re probably having a different conversation about this game.
My biggest gripe about the play-call was the lack of safety help. Fred Warner dropped into coverage, but there was no deep help. So, with 17 seconds remaining in the half and the offense had zero timeouts, Wilks elected to take the shallow portion of the middle of the field as opposed to the intermediate to deep. That proved to be the most egregious mistake of all.
Their best was better
Without Justin Jefferson, the Vikings have been leaning on tight end T.J. Hockenson as their biggest threat. Fred Warner is unanimously recognized as the best linebacker in the NFL, largely for his unique ability in coverage.
On the night, Warner gave up six receptions on seven targets for 59 yards and four first downs. Three of those targets and receptions came against Hockenson, which each pass resulting in a catch.
Through six weeks, Warner had only allowed seven of the 21 receptions to result in a first down — three of those came in Week 1. Since then, Warner has been flawless in coverage.
It’s not uncommon for the NFL’s most prestigious players to have “off” games. Which is why when it happens, as was the case for Warner on Monday night, it’s almost unbelievable.
Going into the game, if I had told you the Niners would have a couple of opportunities to get off the field if Warner could guard Hockenson, you’d like the 49ers’ chances.
The Vikings best was better than the Niners best on key third downs. Wilks shouldn’t be blamed for putting his best player on the opponents’.
Trouble with tackling
Warner also had a critical missed tackle on 2nd & 9 that led to a first down, and eventually points for the Vikings.
Eight different players missed a tackle against the Vikings. Even when you take away Jordan Addison’s 40 yards after the catch on his touchdown at the end of the half, the 49ers defense still allowed 133 yards after the catch.
One of the 49ers greatest strengths through the years has been their ability to tackle. San Francisco was superb for fives weeks. But they’ve missed 19 tackles combined in two games. On the season, only one team has missed fewer tackles.
Recency bias would lead you to believe tackling is an issue for the defense, but five data points before that suggest otherwise. We’re seeing how difficult defense can be for the 49ers when they’re not their usual selves.
Pressure does not bust pipes
Kirk Cousins was cool under pressure. There were multiple occasions where he was hit as he threw or had a defender in his face, but still completed the pass.
The Niners finished with 18 pressures and six QB hits, but it never felt like Cousins was truly flustered. I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Wilks for the Vikings winning the battle in the trenches.
Bosa was credited with six pressures and five run stops. He was incredible. But there wasn’t a complementary rusher who consistently won.
It was a damned if you do, damned if you don’t type of game for Wilks. It was evident that the 49ers cornerbacks were struggling to cover as the game progressed. When Wilks blitzed, he got burned for it. There was a perfectly called screen pass right into the blitz that the Vikings took for a first down. Cousins’ lowest completion percentage came when he had time to throw, but that was 72.4.
In the video below, I went over everything, but primarily the issues in coverage. We already discussed whether the 49ers have a cornerback problem.
The 49ers defense hasn’t played this poorly for four quarters in a long, long time. Think about everything that went wrong, then look at the scoreboard. If the floor is giving up 22 or 23 points, this unit is in great shape for the season.
The questions the front office is facing is whether the Vikings' 61 percent conversion rate on third downs is sustainable. Will the pressures begin to turn into sacks? Are the cornerbacks good enough to hold up for the plays when the pass rush doesn’t get to the quarterback?
Whether it’s adding another piece in the secondary, along the defensive line, or the team decides to stand pat, the 49ers moves at the trade deadline will tell us how they feel about the current state of the roster.