Banged-up 49erS Still a Very Tough MNF Test for Vikings + Jeff’s Pick

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Is there a crack in the armor of the previously invincible San Francisco 49ers? Have the Vikings had a personality transplant so that a team that leaned on its offense now will rely on the defense to carry them back to the postseason?

Banged-up 49erS Still a Very Tough MNF Test for Vikings + Jeff’s Pick

Both of the above statements are likely overreactions to last Sunday’s games. The 49ers fell 19-17 in Cleveland for their first defeat of the 2023 season and QB Brock Purdy’s first regular season loss after 10 wins to start his career.

Meanwhile, the Vikings rode the defense led by Danielle Hunter, Jordan Hicks, and Josh Metellus that produced three turnovers to overcome the offensive futility (two first downs in the second half and several more dropped balls) of the Justin Jefferson-less Purple and beat the Bears in Soldier Field.

MNF test
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We’ll see how on Monday night before a raucous U.S. Bank Stadium crowd if the Niners return to elite form or if the Vikings can gain a needed upset victory to propel them forward into playoff contention.

Here are my keys to the Vikings surprising the ESPN national TV audience and pulling off a huge win:

1. 49ers injury report: three key players were injured in Cleveland. Pro Bowl back Christian McCaffrey, a terrific dual threat as a rusher and receiver, has an oblique injury. Top wide receiver and jet sweep threat Deebo Samuel hurt his shoulder. And Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams injured his knee. None of them practiced on Thursday. The Niners offense will be weaker if any or all of these great players can’t play on Monday night. Excellent linebacker Dre Greenlaw also did not practice (hamstring).

Along with the extremely damaging absence of Jefferson, the Vikings D will be without OLB/Edge Marcus Davenport for at least four weeks as he’s on IR with a high ankle sprain. While he’s been very effective in the two games he’s played for the Vikings, Davenport is proving to be an injury risk, just as he was in New Orleans last season when he missed several games.

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2. Run the ball better to set up play action: the Vikings have been shaky the past two weeks, with 70 and 46 yards on the ground against the Chiefs and Bears, respectively. They need more from their run game to set up play-action passes, or the excellent San Fran defense will be all over Kirk Cousins.

I’d like to see an even split in snaps between Alexander Mattison (who runs hard but is not a great cutback runner, and he is dropping too many passes) and Cam Akers, who is a more instinctual runner and has good hands in the passing game. Perhaps Kevin O’Connell can throw in just activated and speedy Kene Nwangwu for his first offensive snaps this season, along with kickoff returns if there’s an opportunity.

I’d also like to see more snaps for guard Dalton Risner, who helped open a hole for Mattison’s big first-down run on the final drive in Chicago. Ezra Cleveland did not practice Thursday due to an injured foot, so that may be Risner’s pathway to starting at left guard on Monday (although I’d like Risner to eventually take over at right guard, replacing Ed Ingram).

3. Protect Cousins: this is a huge challenge against elite pass rushers Nick Bosa (who led the league last season with 18.5 sacks but is off to a slower start after his training camp holdout with 2.5 sacks) and Javon Hargrave (3 sacks after 11 last year in Philly). Pro Bowl linebacker Fred Warner is a good blitzer, and Cousins should see some blitzing after the Bears and Chiefs had success sending extra rushers.

4. Catch the dang ball: at least nine drops have dragged down the offense over the past two games. T.J. Hockenson has four of the drops, and he needs to start playing like the highly-paid Pro Bowler he is.

5. Batten down the hatches as the 49ers try to run it down the Vikings throats: San Francisco has the NFL’s third-ranked running game, and with Purdy having struggled last week (and if Samuel is out), expect Coach Kyle Shanahan to lean on the run — even if McCaffrey is out — after seeing the Bears rush for 162 yards last week and the Eagles had 259 yards on the ground in Week 2.

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Davenport helped against the run with his big body, and now he’s out. This is a huge challenge for the entire defense, especially the interior D-linemen and inside backers.

6. Get after Purdy: the Browns were effective with their front seven in pressuring Purdy, especially with Williams hurting. Shanahan will likely follow the Chargers plan with quick passes outside against Brian Flores’ blitzes. Purdy threw his first interception of the season last week. Can the Vikings create pressure and havoc to disrupt the second-year QB? Hunter will have to continue his outstanding play (league leader with eight sacks) for the Vikings to have a chance to win.

7. Special teams make plays and no blocked kicks & get a miss or two again this week from 49ers rookie kicker Jake Moody: the 49ers would’ve beaten the Browns if third-round rookie Moody had made a 41-yard field goal at the buzzer. He also missed from 54. Greg Joseph has missed only one field goal this season—from 57 yards in windy Soldier Field last week so it should be an advantage Vikings in the kicking game if they can avoid having kicks blocked, such as the PAT the previous week.

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And Nwangwu is a Pro Bowl kickoff returner who could swing the game if he gets his hands on a return. 

Jeff’s Pick:

After watching the struggles of the Vikings offense last week without J.J. against Chicago’s 25th-ranked defense, it’s hard to see Cousins and his supporting cast scoring enough points to win against the league’s No. 1 team in points allowed with 14.5 per game. And I don’t trust the Vikings’ run D, even if McCaffrey is out.

The 49ers will be cranked up to show the national audience and teams around the league that they should still be considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl in February. I’m picking the 49ers 23-17 in a low-scoring game, as the Vikings will have to wait until the Saints come to town in Week 10 to get their first home win of 2023.

Around the NFL:

1. Detroit at Baltimore: this is a battle of division leaders and a tough game to pick with the Lions hot at 5-1, but I like the 4-2 Ravens to win at home behind Lamar Jackson’s running and passing. And the Lions may feel too comfortable with their 2 1/2 game lead in the NFC North.

2. Miami at Philadelphia: in this Sunday night must-see, the Eagles’ banged-up secondary will try to slow down Miami’s prolific passing offense. I see a bounce-back game for Eagles’ QB Jalen Hurts after his three interceptions in the loss last week to the Jets. If the game were in Miami, I’d go with the Dolphins, but it’s in Philly, so I pick the Eagles.

3. Green Bay at Denver: the Broncos are awful and have internal problems with receiver Jerry Jeudy among others. The Packers come off their bye as they try to get Jordan Love back on track after his lousy performance in Las Vegas. I trust the Pack more than the Broncos in this game.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter — @jeffdiamondnfl