No one in the national media thought that the Vikings would be here. In fact, not only did many think that the Vikings would lose to the Saints last Sunday, a few in the pre-game show picked the Saints to win by 17-points. That’s fine, or actually good as if there’s a coach in the NFL that prefers to be an underdog going into big games it’s Mike Zimmer. Zimmer is masterful at exploiting the words of people he doesn’t respect anyway, and when you add an NFL preview video that omitted the Vikings as one of the playoff teams on top of it, you’ve got yourself a recipe for a team that is and was very fired up.
Fast forward to this week and you’d think that if the sixth seed Vikings didn’t stand a chance against the Saints, then you’d think that the Vikings would stand zero chance against the number one seed in San Francisco. Right?
Apparently not, as many in the national media (and this nfl football prediction robot) are picking the purple to continue to spoil the party for the “elite” teams in the NFC, you know, those fancy teams that get videos made of them before the playoffs. I wanted to focus on just one of those fancy people as I think that it’s valuable to get outside of the purple bubble that we all inhabit to see what people on a national level have to say about the team and the game this Saturday as while no one is completely objective, it’s safe to say that national pundits aren’t subjective about either the Vikings or the 49ers. Also, purple bubble would be a great name for a Prince cover band.
That’s where Gregg Rosenthal, one of the editors over at NFL.com, comes in.
Rosenthal starts his analysis of Saturday’s action on shaky ground, stating:
“The 49ers have done everything right to get to this point, with a home-field advantage over a thinner-than-usual NFC field.”
What is usual? Last year? Because I’d argue that the fact that the final playoff seeding in the NFC wasn’t set until the 25th hour is a testament to the competitive nature of the NFC this season. Outside of that, the records of the teams in the NFC are better than they were last year, and better on average than the teams in the AFC.
Maybe he means the actual quality of the teams? But, again, I’d take this year’s bunch over the same from last year. The Eagles were 9-7, the Cowboys were 10-6 as were the Seahawks, the Bears were 12-4 and the Rams and Saints were 13-3. This season? The Eagles were 9-7, the Vikings were 10-6, the Seahawks were 11-5, the Saints, Packers, and 49ers? 13-3.
But let’s not get bogged down by that.
Rosenthal essentially spends the first two paragraphs (outside of the first and last sentences) talking about how good the 49ers are. He begins by pointing out that they’ve weathered a lot of injuries this season and will be “healthier than ever, with pass rusher Dee Ford… [L]inebacker Kwon Alexander expected to return, in addition to having both tackles, George Kittle and the defensive backfield at full strength.” Yeah, that’s true, and sort of the opposite of what is happening with the Vikings, who are down Mackenzie Alexander, Mike Hughes and Jayron Kearse in the secondary, and, well all know what is going on with Adam Thielen cut ankle/proof that the Vikings truly are a cursed franchise.
He also touches on the fact that the 49ers lost three games this season and all of those losses occurred late in the game, or rather “all in the final seconds”. While they say that the difference between a good and great team is that teams ability to win close games, the fact that the 49ers lost to Seahawks, Ravens and … Falcons, isn’t something you can just gloss over. That having been said, let’s gloss over it. I’m joking, but, up until the confusing loss to the Falcons, it was clear that the 49ers could hang with everyone in the NFL.
On the offensive side of the ball, Rosenthal touches on the strides they made this season and how 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is increasingly comfortable running head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, especially on third down. He discusses the emergence of relatively new 49er Emmanuel Sanders, as well as Deebo Samuel and slot receiver Kendrick Bourne, from the five-receiver rotation the 49ers were using at the start of the season.
All that having been said, Rosenthal says:
“General manager John Lynch and Shanahan did almost everything right the last three years to build the franchise to this very moment. Yet, I suddenly believe they are going to lose this week”.
And that’s the entire article.
I’m joking. Again. Imagine if that was the case. I’d love to start using that as my evidence for each take I make. “Cousins was involved in the assassination of JFK… Because football”. It’s airtight!
I get what Rosenthal means, though. He means that while everything seems to be coming up red (?) and gold, you still have to play the game. Also, the Vikings are no slouches themselves, as Rosenthal states as he starts his analysis of the Vikings:
“The Vikings are not your average No. 6 seed.”
That they are not. Which you’d think should also remind Rosenthal that the NFC isn’t “thinner than usual”, as if your number six seed is, roster-wise, this good, then perhaps the entire conference is pretty darn good? Either way, Rosenthal states that based on “pure talent” the Vikings are the second-best NFC team left in the playoffs (and the fourth-best roster in the playoffs after you add the Ravens and Chiefs from the AFC). I don’t agree with that, but don’t want to go on an entire tangent as to why I think that the Vikings, based on pure talent, are not only NOT the fourth-best team left in the playoffs, but actually the most talented team (on paper) in the entire NFL.
This is the kicker, though, and what I believe led Rosenthal to “suddenly believe” that the Vikings would upset the 49ers. One word, five syllables. I’ll give you a hint… It rhymes with spontaneity.
That word is continuity. The Vikings have a ton of continuity on defense. There are a few ways to measure that, like (for example) the fact that the Vikings brought back 10 of their 11 defensive starters from 2018 this season (and that 11th? He was a season removed from playing on this team as well) this season.
Rosenthal focuses on another metric, though.
“Eight of [the Vikings’] defensive starters having played at least five seasons together under Mike Zimmer”. Because of that, and the way the roster is constructed, Rosenthal correctly states that the Vikings can “throw a lot of different looks at an offense with their top three safeties That experience and talent allows them to adjust their plans weekly in the playoffs like they did when the dominated the base Saints offense for three quarter”.
He’s not wrong. Each player on this Vikings defense knows the guy next to him like the back of his hand. In a defense that’s predicated on focusing on your job and not overextending yourself to compensate for the guy next to you, that’s incredibly important. It also means that this defense has practiced some pretty, pretty weird stuff (in football terms). While Zimmer’s defense is always adapting (hence his disdain for being labeled a Double-A Gap Blitz system label (not sure why I capitalized each of those)), at this point, these guys understand Zimmer’s system to the point that you know they’ve practiced some really wei… Weird isn’t the right word. They’ve practiced some next-level stuff.
We got to see some of that last Sunday against the Saints. Outside of a play here and there, perhaps due to some injuries during the regular season, we hadn’t seen what the Vikings defense did against the Saints before. Think about that, as Rosenthal points out and we’ve discussed, this Vikings defense has been together forever (by football standards). It’s like dog years, but instead of each year counting as 7, each football year is like a decade of staring at the sun. If we hadn’t seen this before despite the continuity, that means Zimmer and company have other sneaky formations and game plans that we’ve yet to see.
That’s not to say that we’ll see them tomorrow, but the Vikings definitely need to pull something special out of their hats against the running game the 49ers employ. According to an article on MercuryNews.com (a California paper):
“The 49ers run more 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) than any other team in the NFL. They particularly love running the ball with that personnel — no team runs with that grouping more.
The Vikings, in turn, are arguably the NFL’s worst defense when it comes to stopping the run against 21 personnel. They allowed 6.9 yards per carry on such plays this season.”
Yeah, and Michael Thomas was unstoppable.
That’s not really an apples to apples comparison, but the Vikings will have a solution today for the Niners’ ground game. If not, it could be a long day, but it’s hard to completely fix a season-long issue in a short week, but if anyone can do that it’s Zimmer and this defense that otherwise has been good against the run. It’s actually the one category that the Vikings lead the Niners in (in terms of overall yards either created or allowed, on defense or offense respectively), so it’s not as if they’re otherwise terrible against the run.
The fact that the teams in the NFL, on average, only run 21 personnel on 9% of their plays (that includes throws) might be the culprit as well. The Vikings simply haven’t seen a lot of it, and thus, the few times they did they just didn’t play against it well and the numbers reflect that. They’ll have to have a solution, though, as the Niners lead the league by far in terms of the frequency in which they run the 21, at 38% of the time (the number two team is the New England Patriots who are nearly 10% behind the Niners at 29%, then it’s three teams between 20% and 24%, a few teams in the teens and the rest under 10%, with the Vikings coming in at just 6%).
In terms of the passing game, the Vikings have better news.
Jimmy Garoppolo may be one of the emerging stars of the NFL, but Drew Brees he is not. If the Vikings were able to get future Hall of Famer and holder of many a NFL record off his game, at home, then it’s safe to say that the Vikings should be able to handle whatever Jimmy G. throws their way (especially considering his inability to look off coverages, get beyond the first receiver in his progressions, etc. (and that’s not me saying that, that’s the Sacramento Bee and Press Democrat, both pro-49ers papers)).
Rosenthal points out the fact that the Vikings employ second-best red-zone… Def-ense, and the +12 turnover margin as other strengths of this squad. Then he gets into the other side of the ball. He glosses over the offense by mainly pointing out the studs the Vikings have and the brain-trust of Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak, but then essentially says that the Vikings team on both sides of the ball has athletes. Although he does hedge his bets by saying “Just like the 49ers”.
Either way, he finishes by calling the Vikings/Niners game the “best football weekend of the year”.
He isn’t wrong. It’s my thought that this will be a very close game, and that’s a terrifying prospect for me personally as I barely survived the Saints game. These teams match-up against one another really well and it’s going to come down to who has the better game plan, the better athletes and the better execution.
While every week is obviously different, the fact that Zimmer and company came together and collectively coached their best game of the season against a Saints team that is arguably better than any other team in the NFC, speaks volumes about the Vikings chances this afternoon. Because of that, I would say that the Vikings have an advantage in all three of those things.
Coaching? Yes. As long as they don’t get too cute and focus on doing what they do well, they should be able to out coach Shanahan and company. The 49ers obviously run a zone-running scheme as Shanahan’s father, Mike, is more than any other coach associated with zone runs. With Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison running a similar system, the Vikings should have tremendous insight as to how to stop the committee of running backs the Niners employ each week, even if the Vikings are the worst in the league at stopping 21 personnel runs and the 49ers run that personnel package more than any other in the NFL. You can also read this article from purplePTSD.com writer DeShawn Vaughn, if you want to delve into the coaching match-ups a bit more.
The better athletes? Yes. As stated above, the Vikings simply have the better players in the skill positions on offense. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are better than Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel, Dalvin Cook is better than Raheem Mostert, George Kittle is better than Kyle Rudolph but the difference is negligible in the red-zone and the Vikings are perhaps the best team in the NFL against tight ends.
Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo are even at this point, and while some Niners fans may scoff at that notion, remember that Jimmy was the consolation prize for the Niners and their head coach Kyle Shanahan, who worked with Cousins in Washington and was hoping to land him in free agency.
While the Vikings defense is filled to the brim with talent, the Niners team is too and while they’ve ranked better in most categories this season, the continuity explained above should help fill that gap. That’s where the execution part comes in. Sure, during the regular season the Niners did best the Vikings in terms of overall offense and defense as well as passing offense and defense in terms of total yards gained or allowed, with the Vikings topping the Niners in terms of yards allowed in the run game on defense, but the execution of the gameplan against the Saints was so masterful that it not only got the Vikings to this point but it also has many thinking that the Vikings could be the team no one wants to face in the playoffs.
That’s my main concern, beyond the fact that the Vikings are reportedly working out Terrance Newman, who is now 41-years-old, to hopefully help with their cornerback depth should they best the 49ers today. If that’s the case, Newman will be back in time for the NFC Championship game against, if you believe Rosenthal, the Packers.