The San Francisco 49ers open up their 2018 regular season with a road contest against the Minnesota Vikings. Let's look at five storylines you'll want to pay attention to during the game.


As Zain Naqvi and I pointed out on the latest 49ers Webzone No Huddle podcast, the San Francisco 49ers might as well have arguably their toughest challenge of the 2018 season right out of the gate.

This is, of course, the Niners' Week 1 bout with the Minnesota Vikings -- a likely NFC Championship contender this year after finishing last year with a 13-3 record and a trip to the same game last season. Minnesota finished with the NFL's top defense, both in terms of points and yards allowed, and some could argue this side of the ball got even better this offseason with the additions of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and safety George Iloka.

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Yet a bigger offseason pickup was quarterback Kirk Cousins, who replaced Vikings 2017 hero, Case Keenum. Cousins has ties to the 49ers, of course, being a favorite of Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan and a one-time possible free-agent target for San Francisco before last year's trade for Jimmy Garoppolo.

The quarterback battle is going to be one storyline fans will pay close attention to during this contest, so let's start there with these five points to watch from Sunday's contest.

Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Kirk Cousins


Both Garoppolo and Cousins signed lucrative four-year deals with their respective teams this offseason. Garoppolo getting his five-year, $137.5 million deal, while Cousins landed a three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract in Minnesota.

So, who spent the money more wisely?

According to the film (h/t Rich Madrid of 49ers Webzone), Cousins' flaws typically reside in deep passing and at the moments where he's forced to put the ball in small windows. I mentioned this earlier over at Niner Noise, specifically looking at ways the 49ers can force Cousins to make mistakes. He's averaged over 15 turnovers per season since joining the league in 2012.




Garoppolo is looking to continue his seven-game starting win streak, of course, but doing so in a hostile and loud U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota will be a new challenge for San Francisco's franchise signal-caller. Plus, with Minnesota's defense among the strongest in the NFL entering this season, one has to wonder how well Jimmy G will fare with a receiving corps generally viewed as inferior to the crop of weapons at Cousins' disposal.

But Garoppolo and the 49ers shredded another top-tier defense a year ago (Week 16 versus the Jacksonville Jaguars), so it isn't as if he can't handle the pressure and adjust accordingly where needed.

Which Offensive Line Plays Better?


The 49ers spent considerable effort overhauling their offensive line this offseason, namely bringing in free-agent center Weston Richburg and grabbing right tackle Mike McGlinchey in Round 1 of the 2018 NFL Draft.

On a positive note, the Niners O-line starters are fully healthy for the contest. Depth is a concern, but one should feel pretty good about San Francisco's blockers going up against one of the better defensive fronts in the NFL right now. That said, Pro Football Focus pegged the 49ers O-line No. 16 heading into the regular season.

Shanahan recently noted he plans on starting Mike Person, not Joshua Garnett, at right guard for the contest. It will be interesting to see if that was the right move, as Garnett saw his stock rise in his preseason appearances.


Yet the Vikings O-line isn't exactly 100 percent. PFF ranked this group at No. 28 overall ahead of Week 1, making it one of the few weaknesses Minnesota has on its roster. And it's not fully healthy either. Starting center Pat Elflein (ankle) is out for the contest, meaning backup lineman Brett Jones will get the start here.

Jones is also dealing with an ankle injury.

San Francisco might not have a potent outside pass rush. But a crop of interior defenders, namely DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas, could look to exploit this Vikings weakness.

Richard Sherman's Debut


49ers fans saw a bit of veteran cornerback Richard Sherman during the team's preseason Week 3 bout in Indianapolis against the Colts. Sherman looked fine, logging a tackle and a pass breakup during his limited action. But this contest in Minnesota will be a different challenge.

The three-time first-team All-Pro will match up against Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs early and often Sunday. Diggs, who ran a 4.42 40-yard time at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, has speed to burn. And Sherman has never been known for his straight-line speed.

Where Sherman wins, however, is with his physicality at the line of scrimmage and in his body positioning within a Cover 3 zone-style defense. While there are going to be questions about how Sherman's 2017 Achilles and 2018 training camp hamstring injuries affect his abilities, a solid effort from the 30-year-old veteran could force Cousins into making those mistakes while targeting Diggs.

Trent Taylor vs. Mackensie Alexander


The Vikings have a pretty good crop of boundary cornerbacks. Trae Waynes and the All-Pro, Xavier Rhodes, will look to limit Garoppolo to inside passing. But the Niners may be able to take advantage of another receiver-corner matchup on Sunday, namely between slot wideout Trent Taylor and nickel cornerback Mackensie Alexander.

Alexander is still questionable with an ankle injury. According to PFF, the third-year corner posted a pass-coverage grade of 52.7 last year -- second worst out of all Vikings defensive backs.

This one-on-one matchup was something I discussed on the 49ers' flagship station, KNBR 680, with Ryan Covay as we broke down what to expect out of this contest. And if the 49ers offense wants to move the ball through the air effectively, the budding relationship between Garoppolo and Taylor needs to be ticking well.

How Does the 49ers Running Game Perform?


Week 1 was supposed to be something of a homecoming for No. 1 running back Jerick McKinnon, who spent the first four years of his career in Minnesota before signing as a free agent with San Francisco this offseason.

But McKinnon is done for the year with a torn ACL, meaning the bulk of ground ball-carrying duties fall on backup runners Matt Breida and Alfred Morris, who was signed as a free agent during the preseason. A year ago, the Vikings ranked fifth best in the NFL by averaging 3.7 rush yards against over the course of the season. And in terms of overall yards allowed, their 1,337 yards against were the second fewest.

Despite having some issues with drops his rookie year, Breida should be a focal point of the short passing game -- a safety valve for Garoppolo out of the backfield. And while Morris has never been known as a prolific pass catcher, Shanahan will need to get him going on short-yardage and goal-line situations when they're presented.

The reason why is the Vikings offense, even with Cousins' flaws, is still more than potent to beat a questionable 49ers defense. Keeping the Minnesota offense off the field is essential, as it is in most contests, but particularly in a game where wearing down an opposing defense will be both tough but necessary.

If San Francisco's ground game is unable to generate enough gain and provide Garoppolo with short third-down situations, the Niners offense might find itself in a bit too much trouble to overcome.

The 49ers and Vikings kick off at 1 p.m. ET from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota on Sunday, Sept. 9.

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 @PeterPanacy on Twitter.