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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

49ers defense back to its dominant ways in playoff win vs. Vikings

Jan 11, 2020 at 6:05 PM--

Towards the end of the 2019 regular season, the San Francisco 49ers looked as if their defense was leaking a bit of oil. The Niners were still winning games, yes. But they were no longer the one-sided, dominant victories head coach Kyle Shanahan's squad was enjoying much earlier in the year.

That didn't look to be the case in the Niners' 2020 playoff debut in the divisional round against the Minnesota Vikings.

San Francisco pulled off the 27-10 victory at Levi's Stadium, eliminating the No. 6-seed Vikings and advancing to the NFC Championship game in the process. And while the score makes it sound somewhat close, the Niners defense hardly ever let Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and Co. get going.

Of Minnesota's 10 points, three came off the turnover from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, while the other seven stemmed from a touchdown by Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who beat cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon on a 41-yard score.

Those 41 yards made up nearly a third of Minnesota's offense on Saturday.

The Vikings had just seven first downs, picked up 147 net yards and went just 2-of-12 on third-down attempts. And if Minnesota's plan was to get its running back, Dalvin Cook, involved early, well, Cook had a combined 26 yards on the ground and through the air. Cousins, meanwhile, was sacked six times, tossed the touchdown to Diggs, but was also picked off by cornerback Richard Sherman.

Sure sounds a lot like the kind of defensive efforts the Niners put on earlier during the regular season, right?

A big reason why was the healthy returns of three contributors: EDGE Dee Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander and strong safety Jaquiski Tartt. All three made huge contributions in one way or another. Ford picked up one of the six sacks and had two quarterback hits, while Tartt made the 49ers' safety play much more interchangeable, successfully. Alexander might not have had an impact on the stat sheet, but he was nevertheless a factor, often forcing Cook to revert back other directions, shortening his gains and allowing other defenders to converge quickly.

The 49ers benefited from this by having the first-round playoff bye, and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was quick to point out how beneficial it was.

"We were able to get guys back healthy," Buckner told reporters after the game. "The guys who were playing all year were able to get the time to take care of their bodies a little longer.

"It was just a great effort by everybody on the defense honing in on their jobs. It was a great game plan by the coaches, and we just went out there and executed."

Cook agreed.

"They came out ready to play," the Vikings running back added. "They have good players, too. They played a good game. They just came out ready to play."

Buckner and Ford each had a sack. So did fellow defensive linemen Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, while rookie EDGE Nick Bosa added two of his own. Noticeably, all the 49ers' first-round picks of their defensive line took down Cousins at one point or another Saturday.

But those weren't the only defensive highlight reels, as Sherman's pick emulated the kind of playoff success he had long before joining the 49ers in 2018. And like those years, Sherman didn't hesitate to fire back at his critics.

"I get tired of hearing the excuses for why I'm great," Sherman said after the game. "It was man coverage. I covered the man, and I picked the ball off."

Sherman's pick ended a Vikings drive and led directly to a 49ers touchdown, spiking yet another big moment in San Francisco's victory. And in many ways, the all-around defensive dominance emulated the same kind of moments and efforts Sherman, Ford and the rest of the Niners defense was showcasing early in the year.

It's a good time to be playing that way with the NFC Championship game just around the corner.
  • Written by:
    Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game and the Niners' flagship station, KNBR 680. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to his Twitter account.

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