This was the most satisfying week 1 victory I've watched since the 49ers beat the Packers at Lambeau in 2012. Nevermind the fact that Berman and Dilfer calling a game is positively brutal in every way, this was fun to watch and sorely needed.
My personal enjoyment comes partly because I live in Minnesota and the misguided Viking-Hype Machine had been in overdrive for about the last 3 months. You'd think Viking fans would know better by now, but aside from a couple of significant injuries on the offensive line (and a history of success slightly better than the Cleveland Browns), the Vikings had every reason to be optimistic not only about week 1, but for the entirety of their season. A promising young quarterback, the return of their exiled superstar running back, and a coaching staff with a plan all seemed like it was just primed and ready for a playoff run in Minneapolis — all a year before they move into their shiny-new bird murdering stadium.
The 49ers on the other hand, had enough bad news to last 5 offseasons. No need to rehash all of that, but the negative energy around the 49ers organization and the departure of nationally-known names was significant enough to convince the majority of Viking fans that this would be a cakewalk. Clearly, that was a mistake.
So the Niners got a meaningful victory for the first time since about Week 9 of the 2014 season and it meant a lot to an aching fanbase that has been dumped on for the better part of a year, myself included.
The problem is, it's hard to tell what exactly the victory tells us about the team and it's prospects for the remainder of the season. Although the Vikings were beginning the season with their arrow pointed upward, the absolute value of that team remains to be seen. Listening to Minneapolis sports radio, they are questioning EVERYTHING about this team right now and rightly so, the Vikings absolutely laid an egg and their so-called best players were largely responsible for it.
Still there were some questions answered during the 60 minute night game and there were some more that were raised. More than anything, seeing the team play meaningful football and have success was a tremendous relief, no matter the reasons for that success.
Here's what we know:
Carlos Hyde is the real deal.
The 2nd year running back looked bigger, faster, and more explosive than his predecessor Frank Gore did the last couple of seasons and it clearly showed in the box score too. Although a punishing runner that has the ability to bring the contact to defenders, Hyde managed to avoid absorbing the big hits that would make you worry about his durability in the long-term. He's clearly better suited than Gore was to running out of shotgun and pistol formations and really kept the defense guessing in option plays. Furthermore, he is an adept pass catcher out of the backfield and it looks as though the 49ers are more willing to throw to their backs than in years past. Carlos Hyde's health will be crucial to San Francisco's success this season and probably for several to come.
Kaepernick's offseason work has improved his play.
Although his statistics weren't terribly noteworthy, he directly contributed to over 200 yards of offense, over half the team's total. More importantly though, Kaepernick was efficient and protective with the football, something he'd really been struggling with the past couple of seasons. He avoided turnovers and did not create more work for the offense by taking sacks and losing yardage. Kaepernick looked far more decisive and willing to keep his eyes downfield as plays matured and this made life very difficult for the Viking's defense trying to decide whether to stay in coverage or come up and play the quarterback when it looked like he might run. The result were some wide-open receivers and some nice touch passes that got to them in a timely manner. Geep Chryst wisely limited the plays where Kaepernick had to throw from the pocket, moving the quarterback and the pocket around frequently, and the play action roll-outs looked particularly effective. I think someone said this would be a good idea, hard to remember.
The defense is still NASTY.
Despite the loss of veteran leadership and proven talent, the 49ers defense looked as disruptive as ever yet markedly different in their approach. Eric Mangini and Vic Fangio differ greatly in their philosophy of when and how to manage their front seven. Fangio rarely blitzed and relied on the talent of the front seven to make plays in base sets. Mangini will send blitzers from all over the place to create pressure and confusion, especially up the middle of the offense. The 49ers aren't as bad off talent-wise as they were made out to be (depth remains to be seen) but they benefited greatly by keeping Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater guessing at when and where the heat was coming from. The result was obvious as Bridgewater, known for his accuracy and elusiveness, was hit frequently and threw some of the most off-target passes I've ever seen in regular season pro-football.
Also, the defensive secondary was terrific in breaking up pass plays and defending the run. For one game anyway, Baalke is looking smart for not throwing money at Perish Cox and Chris Culliver and instead opting to play the young talent drafted in recent years. Tramaine Brock had a crucial pass breakup and capped the night with an interception, proving why he was the Week 1 starter this season and last.
Here's what we're still guessing at:
Will Hyde hold up and what kind of depth is behind him?
Hyde ended up carrying the ball more than he or anyone would have expected and that ended up working in his favor. However, it remains to be seen how his body will hold up through a 16 game season operating as the bell-cow runner. Aside from a slight ankle injury at Ohio State his junior year, Hyde has had little trouble throughout his career. It will be imperative however, that the 49ers provide him some relief down the stretch as they had originally planned. The bench looked remarkably thin after Reggie Bush limped off with his calf strain. Bush was supposed to be the change-of-pace relief runner that would take some of the workload off Hyde, but it's clear now that he cannot be relied on for the entire season. Below Reggie, it gets pretty dicey if you consider either of the promising rookies having to be your full time back.
Can Kaepernick be productive when the running game is not?
The 49ers were gaining yards on the ground in bunches and thus had great success with the play-action pass. The zone-blocking schemes worked exceptionally well against the Viking's front, and that forced them to bring more men down into the box. Kaepernick clearly benefitted and was efficient, but eventually there will be a time when the running game is stifled. Particularly against NFC West opponents, it will come down to situations where the defense sells-out against the run and it will be up to Kaepernick to beat them. I mentioned how he'd improved, but Kaepernick has looked good before. When the pressure turns up, will he be able to rely on his training and mechanics to perform or will the happy feet and turnovers return? It's the most important question facing this team.
Will Torrey Smith be productive?
Much ado was made about the addition of a legitimate deep-threat to the 49ers offense, but he was hardly seen in Monday night's victory. This could be related to the scheme Geep Chryst wanted to implement or what the Vikings were showing them, but much like Kaepernick's situation, there will come a time when he will need to be a factor in the passing game and we've yet to see much that would indicate he's ready to contribute. In order for the 49ers to continue to succeed in the running game, it would seem necessary that they have a deep threat to keep the secondary honest.
Will the 49ers eliminate the penalties?
Both the Vikings and 49ers looked pretty inept in the first half of the game, trading opportunities to shoot themselves in the foot and miss out on points. Holding calls were aplenty and for a while it seemed like either teams' offensive line were having a competition to see who could out-stupid the other. The 49ers managed to only have 1 penalty in the second half, so there's reason for optimism here, but with a new coaching staff and a wealth of new players playing together for the first time, there's little mystery as to why the penalties happened in the first place. It's certainly something that needs to be fixed, but Tomsula and company have earned a pass to get it corrected in due time. The problems seemed to be more individualized than systemic as were the delay-of-game penalties that hallmarked the Jim Harbaugh era.
To summarize, this was a particularly cathartic win for myself and I'm sure a lot of other 49er fans. The only "but" that goes along with that is that the Vikings are such an unknown quantity, trending toward the weaker side it would seem, that it's still anybody's guess what kind of chances the team has against Pittsburgh in week 2. Vegas had them somewhere near 6 point underdogs on the road and for good reason. Nevertheless, Tomsula and company have proven they're still a dangerously talented and unpredictable team that shouldn't be taken lightly on anybody's schedule. That alone is quite a victory with the perceived challenges that faced this team all throughout the offseason.