San Francisco 49ers: 8 Most Critical Matchups Versus the Minnesota Vikings
Let’s face it: seeing the Minnesota Vikings on the schedule doesn’t exactly inspire thoughts of “critical matchup” if you’re a San Francisco 49er.
Whether as a fan or player, the 3-13 Vikings of 2011 haven’t done much this season to dispel that inferior identity of last season.
Be that as it may, this is still a legitimate NFL opponent that features quality players on both sides of the ball. Adrian Peterson is one of the most dynamic backs in the league, while Jared Allen and his 22 sacks last year lead a strong pass rush.
Percy Harvin is always a threat on kickoff returns to take it to the house as well.
The 49ers have been stellar in most phases of the game through Week 2. They’ve scored in the run and in pass game, have shut down two high-powered offenses and even tallied a record-tying field goal.
All of this has come against two NFC North teams; now it’s time for round three against a squad from that same division.
San Francisco is 2-0 while Minnesota dropped to 1-1 after a last-second loss on Sunday. The Vikings squeaked by a poor Jaguars team in Week 1 and followed that up by losing to a Colts team coming of a 214 record in 2011.
Both Peterson and quarterback Christian Ponder have exceeded expectations so far this season. AP overcame a devastating knee injury in short order and Ponder has played beyond his years in the early goings.
Each has two touchdowns on the season.
Alex Smith has been perfect thus far with four TD passes and zero interceptions. Tight end Vernon Davis and RB Frank Gore have five scores between them, while linebacker NaVorro Bowman has been a one-man wrecking ball in the middle of the defense.
Moving forward to the actual game versus the Vikings: let’s analyze eight critical matchups that will factor the most significantly towards a Niners victory on Sunday.
49ers Linebackers vs. Adrian Peterson
There shouldn’t be doubts in anyone’s mind where the strength lies in both the 49ers defense and the Vikings offense.
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman form the preeminent insider linebacker duo in the NFL.
Aldon Smith is one of the premier edge rushers at outside linebacker and is solidifying his all-around skill set.
The one that so often gets overlooked, Mr. Ahmad Brooks, is perhaps the most underrated outside backer in all of football. And as not to be forgotten either, backup Larry Grant would unquestionably be starting for most NFL franchises.
As for the Vikings’ star running back? Peterson has been a productive force since the minute he entered this league.
He’s racked up double-digit touchdowns and at least 1,200 yards in four out of his five seasons. He even cleaned up his fumbling tendencies the last two years, tallying just one after an unreasonable 12 in his first three NFL campaigns.
Let’s also not forget the unbelievably short amount of time in which he came back from invasive knee surgery.
Now it’s time for a clash between these two juggernauts with multiple Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors between them.
The problem for Peterson, though, is that he represents the majority of the offense for the Vikings. The 49ers are the best against the run, something that’s entirely well documented. They will not need to stack the box with extra defenders to contain this powerful threat.
If the need arises, though, they’ll bring in extra personnel and put the onus on Ponder.
Peterson has just 88 yards on 33 carries in two career games against the 49ers. Halve those two numbers and one can imagine the type of output from AP on Sunday.
The clear advantage for the 49ers notwithstanding, San Francisco’s backers still need to focus on the prolific back.
Playing on his home turf as the obvious underdog, Peterson will have plenty of motivation to perform at a high level.
Aldon Smith vs. Matt Kalil
Generating a consistent pass rush is critical for any matchup—that certainly goes without saying.
If the 49ers can generate this against the Vikings, they’ll put a kibosh on the game before it even starts.
Aldon Smith will line up opposite rookie left tackle Matt Kalil on Sunday.
The USC product has not allowed a sack thus far in 2012. Smith, for his part, has two sacks, hits and hurries apiece on the young season. Something will have to give in Week 3.
That “give” will amount to Smith matching his season total against Ponder by way of Kalil. The Vikings rookie has not faced any semblance of a pass rush thus far against Jacksonville and Indianapolis.
Expect the 49ers defensive linemen to set the edge against the run, allowing Smith to bring down the backs and get to Ponder on a consistent basis.
49ers Cornerbacks vs. Percy Harvin
The Vikings are pretty slim at wide receiver. Percy Harvin, however, is not contributing to the paucity at that position.
Harvin is an extremely versatile weapon that can play at any wide receiver spot, as well as out of the backfield in a number of different ways. As a testament to that versatility, he tallied 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage in 2011.
Add to that his presence as a dynamic returner on special teams.
He’ll present a challenge for Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver. The Vikings will line up Harvin in the slot, out wide and in different motion and misdirection formations.
It’ll be incumbent on that trio of 49ers cornerbacks to identify exactly where he lines up on the field. 49ers linebackers must also contain him from sideline to sideline when he goes underneath.
NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis vs. Kyle Rudolph
San Francisco’s middle linebackers have done a good job of limiting opposing tight ends.
Bowman was the man responsible in coverage against Green Bay, while Willis held down most of those duties against Detroit.
Each allowed a touchdown, but Bowman’s came on a one-yard pass after a dubious pass interference call on Dashon Goldson that created extremely favorable field position for the Packers.
Willis gave up a score to Brandon Pettigrew with less than two minutes remaining and with the game out of reach.
Otherwise, the two backers fulfilled their coverage assignments for the most part in the first two games.
The Vikings' Kyle Rudolph is next on the schedule. He has eight catches for 102 yards and a touchdown on the season.
Rudolph, the 6’6’’ Notre Dame product, is a fairly athletic tight end with decent hands. He’ll serve as a security blanket and red-zone target for Ponder throughout the game.
Bowman and Willis will make it their business to eliminate Rudolph from the get-go.
Joe Staley vs. Jared Allen
LT Joe Staley and DE Jared Allen enjoyed wildly productive campaigns in 2011.
Staley played in all 16 games, operating as a fantastic run blocker and being more than adequate in pass protection. Allen was the best at his position and nearly broke an NFL record with 22 sacks.
In 2012, Staley has surrendered three sacks (all to Clay Matthews in Week 1), but has otherwise done a terrific job protecting Alex Smith and paving the way for Frank Gore.
Allen cannot say the same for his productivity.
The Jaguars' Eugene Monroe handled him in Minnesota’s first game. Allen then had some success putting pressure on Andrew Luck the following week, but did not register a sack.
San Francisco’s left tackle will have his hands full one way or another in Week 3. Opposing teams understand that creating consistent pressure on Alex Smith disrupts the 49ers rhythm and overall game plan.
Allen is certainly the man for the job. He’s one of—if not the—most dangerous pass rusher in the NFL.
Staley must contain him individually without relying on help from the tight ends. That’ll help facilitate a more diversified offense for the 49ers.
Most of that entails keeping Smith off the turf.
Vernon Davis vs. Erin Henderson, Chad Greenway, Harrison Smith
Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman’s offense sure enjoys utilizing the tight end position.
Vernon Davis has benefited greatly from that offensive preference thus far in 2012.
VD is tied for the NFL lead with three receiving touchdowns. He has 116 yards receiving and a 14.5-average to boot.
Minnesota’s weak-side linebacker has regressed a bit this season in coverage. Erin Henderson has allowed a touchdown pass and 102.9 rating to opposing quarterbacks.
Chad Greenway, on the other hand, has two deflected passes and has not given up a touchdown. The same goes for rookie Harrison Smith, who’s been rather impressive at free safety.
Davis must utilize his otherworldly talent to exploit weaknesses at all levels of the Vikings defense.
49ers Running Backs vs. Vikings Front 7
The Vikings defense has been formidable against the run so far this season.
It held Maurice Jones-Drew—the NFL’s leading rusher in 2011—in check and without a rushing touchdown. The Colts running backs could not reach the 100-yard plateau against this unit in Week 2, either.
Frank Gore and company will have their most challenging test against the Vikings on Sunday.
The Packers and Lions rushing defense do not possess the same capabilities of Minnesota’s front seven. Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway and the rest of this front seven perform exceptionally in this defensive assignment.
Then again, MJD was rusty after his holdout and the Colts Donald Brown hasn’t been up to snuff so far this season. The 49ers collection of backs is another matter entirely.
Gore has defied his age with 200-plus yards and two touchdowns, while Kendall Hunter has been a great No. 2 man in his limited touches in the early goings. San Francisco also has a home-run threat in LaMichael James and the bruising Brandon Jacobs in its back pocket.
It’s conceivable that the Vikings will hold the 49ers to fewer than 100 yards rushing. But what’s conceivable in theory doesn’t always align with reality.
This will be one of the more intriguing matchups between the 49ers and Vikings on Sunday.
Randy Moss vs. Vikings Secondary
Last, but certainly not least, we have the most intriguing matchup of the day. It's between Randy Moss and the Vikings secondary.
Moss will line up against the team that provided him with his first opportunity in the NFL. It is the team with which he produced NFL-leading statistics, and also the team that harbored the shell of Randy Moss in 2010.
Moss has made a successful comeback thus far when so many were incredulous of his viability as an NFL player after a year away from the game. Even while totaling just 61 yards and a touchdown through two games, Moss has facilitated the success of the 49ers offense with his mere presence.
He has continually drawn multiple defenders even when not targeted, and has contributed in blocking assignments. This has opened up lanes underneath for both 49ers running backs and receivers.
Vernon Davis in particular has greatly benefited. He already has three touchdowns on the young season due in part to Moss veering the attention of the secondary away from him.
Moss will have boundless motivation against his former team to perform in a similar capacity come Sunday.
Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook and the rest of Minnesota’s secondary had better be wary.
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