Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from www.purplePTSD writer and editor of purplePTSD and VikingsTerritory, Joe Oberle.
The Minnesota Vikings open the 2018 regular season at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis against the revitalized San Francisco 49ers. One would think at the outset that this matchup favors the home team (and Vegas agrees, putting the team as 6-point favorites), as they are coming off 13-3 season and a visit to the NFC Championship game. The Niners, on the other hand, were 6-10 in 2018 and have 13 wins in the past three seasons, so, you do the math.
But numbers can be deceiving.
Last season the 49ers picked up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in week 10 and in his five starts led the team to five wins to finish off the season. Members of the local media asked Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer if that momentum can carry over for a team leading into the next season.
“Yes,” he said. “I think in Cincinnati one year we weren’t very good at the beginning of the year and we won three out of the last four. I think we went to the playoffs the next year and we were pretty good. I think it can. A lot of it depends on the players you keep, the attrition.”
“[Kyle] Shanahan has done a really nice job of implementing the offense and then got better throughout the course of the season. They probably implemented the defense. They’ve gotten better throughout the season. Now they’ve got carryover for this year. I think that would be big, yes.”
The Niners have been rebuilding since general manager John Lynch took over in 2017, and certainly Garoppolo is the biggest piece. Garoppolo came from the New England Patriots where he studied under Tom Brady and one of the best coaches in the history of the game in Bill Belichick, but he had some skills before being drafted in 2014—and even the Zimmer took a look at him.
“We looked at him very hard,” Zimmer said of Garoppolo in the draft. “He has a good arm, guns it in the seams. Moves in the pocket; plays confidently and free.”
Garoppolo will be the man the Vikings have stop on the 49ers on Sunday, and the defensive players are well aware of it.
“He gets the ball out quick; he definitely does that,” defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said of Garoppolo. “Accurate, accurate as can be. He’s a leader for sure. We’ve got to get after him.”
The Niners lost their starting running back—former Viking Jerick McKinnon—to a season-ending ACL injury, so more of the offensive burden will fall on Garoppolo.
“For that to happen Saturday, it definitely changes stuff,” Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters on Wednesday.
Shanahan was offensive coordinator in Washington when Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins played the position there. He said that he pulled for Cousins after Shanahan was fired in Washington and is now happy to see him “out there doing it” for another team. Cousins is now going to be playing against his old coach, and like Garoppolo, he will be the main focus of the Vikings offense.
Coming into the season, how Cousins will play will be one of the big unknowns for the Vikings—particularly how he will perform under pressure, which has been the biggest rap on him to date. And the other big unknown for the Vikings is related to that, particularly how well this cobbled-together offensive line will do.
Cousins inadvertently shed a little light on that prospect when he divulged the name (despite his own head coach being coy on it) of the starting center in place of Pat Elflein on Sunday. After Zimmer refused to confirm the erroneous report by Brian Baldinger that Danny Isadora was going to start (after just playing the position for just a half of one preseason game), a reporter asked Cousins how he feels about playing behind a center for the first time in a game.
“I’m excited to build a rapport with [Brett] Jones and the rest of the O-line,” Cousins said. He was then asked if Jones will be the starter Sunday and responded: “You have to ask coach Zimmer, I don’t set the roster, but, yeah, he was the center in walkthrough today.”
Was Zim toying with the media (he said the Isadora report didn’t come from him) or trying to not show his hand sooner than he had to? It is hard to know. But what’s important to know is that whomever snaps the ball to Cousins will have to get up to speed quickly because the 49ers defensive front is ready to take on anyone in front of them.
“High energy. They’ve got a lot of long rangy guys up front, on the defensive line,” Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said of the Niners’ defense. “The linebackers, they’ve active, very mobile guys. Their secondary is fast. They long; they’re rangy, too. They dig up front; they play with a chip [on their shoulder]. They’re downhill guys that want to get involved. So, we’ve just got to come and meet their intensity at the beginning of the game and continue to the end of the game.”
Cook is right in that if the Vikings come out flat in this one, things could go sideways in a hurry for them. It happened in 2015 when the Vikings travelled to San Francisco on a Monday Night Football game to open the season, and a flat Purple squad got beat 20-3 by a team that only won four more games that season. Zimmer might have been thinking about that game (although he said he wasn’t) when saying this about his team’s preparation for this one:
“A few years ago, we started prepping earlier than we did this week. It didn’t turn out well, and I thought we didn’t play very good. We are trying to stay as close as to a normal week as possible. We had one extra day. I talked to some coach, and they had been working on some team for two weeks. I’d rather get [my players’] attention right now, get them focused on what we are trying to get accomplished, the plays that they have to do and go from there.”
Coming out flat shouldn’t be a problem for this team coming off a great 2017 campaign. The home crowd last watched their team perform in The Vault when the “Minneapolis Miracle” took place and it was a long time before the cheers died down The crowd will be in full throat on Sunday and ready to start another season similar to the last one. The Vikings should be able to start out with a bang.