Poll Of The Week

Poll of the Week: Don’t Sleep On the San Francisco 49ers

The Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers are franchises heading in different directions. For one, the needle is pointing up after adding significant, young talent on both sides of the ball, from second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks. The other, a perennial playoff favorite, watched former All-Pro players like Frank Gore and Patrick Willis  sign with other teams or retire from football completely.

Optimism heading into Week One is at an all-time high, but to expect an easy win would be discounting a San Francisco 49ers team with a chance to pull of the surprise upset next Monday. I’m of the mindset that the Vikings will win the game, but not without a few challenges.

Where could the Vikings falter, and what will they need to do to ensure a win to start the season?

Run Defense

Last season, the Vikings ranked 25th against the run, allowing 121 yards per game to opposing teams. In a three-game stretch from Week 12 to Week 14, the Vikings allowed 138, 155, and 178 yards rushing to the Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers, and New York Jets respectively. Those numbers became a thorn in the side of head coach Mike Zimmer, who adjusted his scheme this offseason to allow more freedom up front, per 1500 ESPN’s Andrew Krammer:

[quote_box_center]”We’ve tried to give the defensive line a little bit more freedom this year in some of the things that we’re doing,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes when they have a little more freedom they create a little bit more space for other guys that have to make it up. It’s a fine line right now, but we’re working on a lot of these things so that we can try to create a few more plays defensively.” [/quote_box_center]

His adjustments — allowing pass rushers to take an aggressive first step versus reading for a run — seem to be working, as the Vikings allowed just 3.5 yards per rush to opposing offenses this preseason. Linebackers can flow more freely, and an athletic group of Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Gerald Hodges Jr. have the skill set to cut through lanes and fill the gap quickly.

According to the Star Tribune’s Mark Craig, Zimmer likes how the Vikings performed against the run, and the 49ers will provide an excellent test for his altered scheme. In San Francisco, Carlos Hyde replaces Frank Gore and has done an admirable job taking over the reigns in the backfield. Through three preseason games, Hyde carried the ball 13 times for 73 yards, averaging 5.6 yards per carry in the 49ers’ power running attack.

If the Vikings are going to be successful, it starts with Everson Griffen, who will line up against the 49ers’ best lineman, left tackle Joe Staley. San Francisco will likely run his way after moving right guard Alex Boone to left guard this offseason, taking advantage of stretch, power, and counter plays to that side. Griffen was one of Pro Football Focus’s highest-rated defensive ends against the run last season, so I expect he’ll hold his own next week.

Pass Protection

With a multitude of injuries to the Vikings offensive line, protecting Teddy Bridgewater should be a major concern next week, even against a depleted San Francisco 49ers defense. Eric Mangini takes over defensive play-calling duties for the 49ers this year, and brings a blitz-first mentality to San Francisco.

Looking back at the team’s first preseason game against the Houston Texans, Mangini sent six pass rushers on three plays, seven rushers once, and eight on another play. According to the Sacramento Bee, the 49ers didn’t bring eight defenders during any of Vic Fangio’s four seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator.

His strategy makes sense given the exodus of talent on the defense. Pass rusher Aldon Smith was released after another arrest, Patrick Willis retired in the offseason, and Justin Smith hung his cleats up after the 2014 season. Aaron Lynch, who has battled back injuries throughout training camp, will replace Aldon Smith on the left side, while a number of young players, like rookie Arik Armsted, could man the right side of the defensive line.

My biggest fear heading into Monday is the play of T.J. Clemmings and Mike Harris at right tackle and right guard. While they’ve played well this preseason, their inexperience could pose a problem against pass rush stunts and games by the defensive line. Communication becomes crucial when defensive linemen are switching gaps, trading places with blitzing linebackers, and crashing inside. Monday night will be a true test of their progress in that regard, and a key to keeping Teddy Bridgewater upright.

Late Start/Primetime Game

This particular problem isn’t necessarily a problem created by the 49ers, but rather, by their location. Because the Vikings play the final game of Week One on the west coast, their game won’t begin until 7:15 pm PST. In “Vikings Time,” the game is actually set to start at 9:15 pm CT, making this as much of a mental test as a physical test.

Going back to 2009, the Vikings have struggled in primetime games. Below, a look at their primetime records each year:

  • 2009: 0-3
  • 2010: 1-4
  • 2011: 0-2
  • 2012: 0-1
  • 2013: 1-2
  • 2014: 0-1

Combined, the Vikings have gone 2-13 in night games — Monday, Thursday, Sunday — in a six-year span. Given their struggles, it won’t be an easy task to fly across two time zones and play a desperate San Francisco 49ers team next Monday. I believe Mike Zimmer will have his team ready for the game, but history suggests the Vikings could be in for a surprise when they take the field at such a late start time.

Other than the weaknesses listed above, what concerns you about the Vikings heading into Week One? Will Colin Kaepernick run wild, can Blair Walsh connect on critical field goals? Answer the poll below and share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Austin Belisle

Austin Belisle is the West Coast's biggest Vikings fan, a football diehard cheering on the purple and yellow from sunny California. After graduating from San Jose State University in 2014, he began working full-time in corporate marketing and blogging on various sports websites. Austin's passion for the Vikings led him to Vikings Territory, where he hopes to share his lifelong enthusiasm for the team with readers on a daily basis. You can follow him on Twitter @austincbelisle

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      1. Funny you should mention that, Fran. I swear, I just decided to come back for a look, and there you were, along with Cal, bjohnny, ccart & ole. Still no Fred, huh?

        The loss of Sullivan is a huge blow to this team. So many things going so well, and then this. As you might guess I would say, you can’t lose someone like that on your OL without it impacting the opportunity for success.

    1. Hello CC and Fran. Now that the season is starting I will be a regular once again and hope you guys are too.

  1. All of the above worries me.
    That being said…I believe we’re gonna win. Believe it! The one thing I really don’t want is Walsh lining up for a chip shot for the win…something just ain’t right with that kid. I have almost no confidence in him.

  2. O-line has been the big question and still is. we’re a year away, imo, so i just want to see the offense click, steady improvement from TB, and AD with the same abilities

    to win a title, we’ll need a great D, and that’s where i think our strength will be, so watching them develop under zim should be fun

    i’d be surprised if we didn’t win this monday. as mentioned, there’s a lot going against us for this game, except that SF’s off season has turned into some kinda dumpster train fire wreck. but it is the first game, so you don’t know…

  3. It’s great to see Big Johnny back here at VT. Bloody shame to hear the news about his bigger sister. He cha……. I mean SHE got a new hair cut, then claimed she was Bruce Jenner’s long lost twin “sister” . It was going great until he did that photo shoot for “Tow Truckers of the Midwest” where she literally was exposed as a fraud. She went on the lam, and was last seen selling produce at a cucumber stand on the outskirts of Xatapa Mexico.

    1. Things were never the same for Big Johnny’s Bigger Sister ever since she turned down that gig as Foreman at the meat packing plant in Austin Mm.

      “Foreman? ” she indignantly bellowed. Strangely, she never asked about her duties at the meat packing plant.

  4. Spielman should have done more over the past few seasons to improve the o line. I like the team that he has built, but this feels like neglect. I mean, it feels like every year we drafted a TE, WR where there was no real need instead of picking o line.

    I hope they stay healthy and perform well, but its frustrating because this team looks and feels pretty stacked if not for the line. Impatient I guess, in truth I think one or two years away from glory…unless the line plays well then why not us this year?