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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers’ path to victory over the Vikings

Marc Adams
Oct 20, 2023 at 9:20 AM--

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The San Francisco 49ers look to bounce back from their first loss of the lesson, a week ago in Cleveland. The 49ers will face the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. And they could be without some key players, as they have dealt with more injuries this week than they have this season.

The path may not be as simple as some might think, but there is a clear way to victory for the 49ers on Monday night. Here are four keys to improving to 6-1:

1. Make the Vikings one-dimensional

The Vikings' offensive line has been good this season, but they have struggled to establish a run game. They have run the ball less than any team in the NFL, including teams that have played one less game than Minnesota has played. The Vikings average four yards per rush, which isn't bad, but they're not sticking with the run for long.

If the 49ers can keep the Vikings below their average yards per rush, Minnesota will likely abandon the run game, and become one-dimensional. Once that happens, the 49ers pass rush can begin to take over the game, and force Vikings QB Kirk Cousins to start making mistakes. Cousins has been sacked 15 times, which is tied for 16th in the league, and he's been pressured at a decent clip, as well.

Minnesota's offensive line has a pass block win rate of 64.4%, which is 6th in the NFL, but without star receiver Justin Jefferson, the Vikings' pass attack will largely fall on TE T.J. Hockenson. And though the tight end has been one of Cousins' favorite targets, he will be facing a 49ers linebackers corp who play the passing game very well. Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, if he plays, should make things difficult for Hockenson. The 49ers are allowing a QBR of 33.3 (3rd in the NFL) and only 3.82 yards per attempt (1st in the league) when opponents target the TE.

The Vikings have turned the ball over 13 times this season, which is the most in the NFL. They haven't protected the ball very well, and now they face a defense that is elite when it comes to taking the ball away.

It's important for the 49ers to make the Vikings one-dimensional. If they are able to do that, they will force Minnesota into making mistakes that could prove costly.

2. Make the Minnesota defense pay when they blitz

Per Nick Wagoner, of ESPN, "Minnesota blitzes at the highest rate in the league (56.5% of dropbacks, the next closest is NE at 37%). Minnesota DC Brian Flores likes to use his defensive backs to add on to pass rush, deploying them at a 28.4% rate on blitzes, also clearly tops in the league. Nickel CB Josh Metellus and S Harrison Smith get the most pass rush opportunities among the DBs. They've combined for 4 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Smith has a pass rush win rate of 33.3%, highest on the team."

Smith is a problem and has been for the 49ers in seasons past. He makes plays all over the field, and the 49ers need to pay attention to where he's at, especially if he's near the line of scrimmage.

Even though they blitz more than anyone in the league, the Vikings are only generating a pressure rate of 28.9%, which is just 18th in the NFL. According to to Wagoner, "That's largely because teams know blitzes are coming and getting the ball out quickly. Opponents average 2.47 seconds to throw against them, fastest in the NFL by .15 seconds."

But don't count 49ers QB Brock Purdy as one who's concerned. He has been blitzed on 36.9% of his dropbacks, third highest in the NFL. And Purdy has largely handled blitzing defenses well, with a 75.8 QBR against it, which is 12th in the NFL. The New York Giants blitzed Purdy on almost 85% of his dropbacks a few weeks ago. And Purdy made them pay for it once he got settled into the game.

Purdy needs to do that again against the Vikings. When teams blitz, it always means there is open space somewhere, and Purdy needs to find that receiver quickly. As long as he can recognize the blitz before the snap, he should be fine.

Danielle Hunter is an excellent pass rusher and is currently tied for the league lead in sacks with eight. He's also tied for eighth in the NFL with 18 pressures. However, Hunter has not been as effective rushing the passer when the Vikings don't blitz. So it's important the 49ers handle the blitz and that right tackle Colton McKivitz handles Hunter.

3. Revive your run game

The 49ers didn't run the ball as well in Cleveland as they normally do, partly due to the injury to Christian McCaffrey. But the Browns also stacked the box and played a very physical game against the 49ers. The Vikings can't afford to stack the box, because, blitzing as often as they do, makes them vulnerable in the passing game. So the 49ers should be able to take advantage of the Vikings' run defense.

But it won't come easily for the 49ers because the Vikings have surrendered only 3.7 yards per carry, which is 9th in the NFL. Plus, there is the possibility that McCaffrey may not play due to the oblique injury he suffered in Cleveland. Vikings defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is a force in the run defense for Minnesota, with a solid run-stop win rate of 39.4%. Getting Phillips blocked and creating some holes will be crucial for the 49ers in order to revive their run game.

One advantage for the 49ers is that against the Browns, San Francisco struggled to get the outside edge on the run plays, which is a staple in Kyle Shanahan's run game. The Vikings don't have to kind of speed the Browns' defense has, so getting outside should prove to be easier. And that will be important, especially with Phillips inside.

4. Don't play like you played in Cleveland

Last week, I felt like the 49ers were potentially going to have a letdown, coming off of a high in their 42-10 trouncing of the Dallas Cowboys. So I knew it would be harder to focus and keep that edge the team had been playing with, especially going to Cleveland, a team that had not been playing well on offense.

The entire 49ers team played poorly in Cleveland and suffered its first loss. Now, they need to pick themselves up from that disappointment and play like they're capable of playing. That means cutting way down on penalties (last week, they committed 12 of them). It means not turning the ball over, not dropping passes, not missing tackles, and playing with focus, and anger.

And Purdy needs to show that last week was a fluke. It was his worst pro game. And the same can be said for George Kittle. His one catch, one yard performance was the worst of his career. The offensive line needs to play much better, as well. And that could be a challenge, especially if Trent Williams is out or is still hampered by that sprained ankle.

If the 49ers play like they did before last week, they'll win in Minnesota without much problem. But if they are complacent, and play like they played in Cleveland, they could be upset yet again.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

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