What is often regarded as the best football weekend, the Divisional Round of the playoffs is here, and it is shaping up to live up to that moniker. Including a few matchups we don’t get a chance to see very often. One of those being in the NFC, between the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings. A matchup between two teams who are built strikingly similar but have followed different paths along the season. Today I’m going to preview a few of the matchups in this divisional round game, a long with some keys to victory for San Francisco
The last time these two teams met was in week 1 of the 2018 season. Both VERY different teams than the ones we get a chance to see this weekend. Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 261 yards and 1 touchdown on 15 of 33 while Kirk Cousins threw for 244 yards and 2 touchdowns on 20 of 36, the 49ers fell to the Vikings 16-24. Leaving the 49ers 0-1 on their season. The two teams went on their separate, disappointing paths that season. The 49ers went 5-11, losing their starting quarterback. Missing the playoffs in the process. While the Vikings also missed the playoffs, going 8-7-1 on the year.
New Year, New Life
Fast forward to this season, the 49ers have become an Offensive powerhouse Both ranking top 10 in offensive DVOA. 49ers Head coach Kyle Shanahan has turned this offense into a highly efficient power running offense, ranking #2 in rushing behind the historic Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers take advantage of a lot of 21 (2 running backs and 1 tight end) and 22 (2 running backs and 2 tight ends). The heavy use of 21 and 22 personnel sets the 9ers up for success in the play action game with Quarterback Jimmy Garroppolo completing 67% of his passes from there. In addition to has really benefited from this offense, ranking 3rd in true completion percentage with a 76.7% completion percentage.
Just looking at the numbers from this year it’s easy to see just how dominant this offense is. However, they still have a very big challenge ahead of them this weekend. The Vikings defense is filled with playmakers and is a defense that was able to hold a New Orleans team averaging 40 points a game in the month of December to just 20 last week. To beat the Vikings, Coach Shanahan is going to need to do what he does best. Attacking the weakest part of your defense.
A video resurfaced this week of Falcons Tight End Austin Hooper on the Adam Lefkoe show from earlier this year talking about a typical Shannahan gameplan. “The ability to put specific people in great positions of success and like specifically game planning off of like 1 or 2 defenders.” He recalled an example of gameplan “This three technique(D Lineman)? We’re going to make his life a living hell” Stuff like this is what separates Shannahan from the typical offensive football coach. “He was like Nostradamus man.” Not something a defensive coordinator likes to hear. Expect Shanahan to attack the two weakest part of this defense, Cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Xavier Rhodes ranks in the bottom half of cornerbacks in terms of passer rating allowed at 132.7, so, not very good and a prime target for Coach Shanahan to take advantage of.
Looking into a Purple and Gold Mirror
On the Vikings Side of the Ball, Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski and Offensive Advisor Gary Kubiak started the season pretty slow, and as a result struggled against divisional rivals Bears and Packers early on. However, around week 5 they completely retooled the offense. Instead of relying on Running back Dalvin Cook to carry the load, they shifted. Turning Quarterback Kirk Cousins into a play action, stat machine, including 3 straight games with a perfect passer rating. Kirk cousins finished the season just behind Jimmy G in completion percentage. With the shift to a play action heavy offense came impressive statlines from Kirk Cousins including a 73.6% completion rate from play action. Towards the end of the season the Vikings began to emulate the 9ers with a lot of explosive running on top of the play action.
Back In Action
This 49ers Defense was lights out for a majority of the season consistently holding opponents to less than 20 points per game, It wasn’t until week ten when they faced division rival Seattle that this defense gave up 20+ points. Taking into account the sheer amount of injuries that began to pile up combined with tougher schedule the defense began to leak. But with the news of linebacker Kwon Alexander and Defensive End Dee Ford returning to practice its beginning to look like this defense is ready to return to form. When looking at the matchup this weekend and the stats above, we can see the offenses are extremely similar which bodes well for Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh’s gameplan.
With linebacker Kwon Alexander coming back into the lineup, the defense receives a speed upgrade and a terrific run stopper. And a run stopper is something the 49ers need. In addition to stopping the run, adding Alexanders speed back in the creates a big mismatch for the Vikings in terms of the screen game. Speaking of speed, This 9ers defense has a plethora of speed. From the defensive line to the secondary, Speed is Key for this unit. And with offensive weapons like Running back Dalvin Cook and Wide Receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, who was recently downgraded to questionable, speed is important to stop any sort of yards after catch/contact.
To wrap up, this game is a matchup of two very similar teams with their own x factors on each side of the ball. Power Running, Play action passing, and Lightning Quick Defesnses are the keys to the game. On Paper it’s the closest game of the weekend. Expect a tight game between two of the NFC’s Best.
Struggling Jets, Spurs, Gunners, and Rangers fan.