San Francisco 49ers vs Minnesota Vikings: Sketching out a Gameplan for Minnesota
Most people have written this game off already. They talk "moral victory" and what that looks like, with the assumption that the Vikings can't possibly hope to win this game.
It's not an easy game; that's for sure. I myself have the Niners winning on Sunday, as San Francisco is just playing at such a high level right now.
However, as the saying goes, on any given Sunday, strange things happen, and we certainly have seen that this season. It is absolutely not inconceivable that the Vikings pull a win out here.
It will be dirty. It might be ugly. It will require some battles in the mud (well, if there were mud in the Metrodome). It can be done.
When the Vikings are on Offense
The 49ers aren't the best team at stopping the run, but that distinction is minor two weeks in. Ranked No. 6 against the ground game, San Francisco has allowed just 127 yards on the ground and NO TOUCHDOWNS.
The Vikings still need to run it right into the teeth of this defense.
So before you go benching Adrian Peterson in your fantasy league, let me tell you why this isn't as bleak as it appears, though it remains a tough angle to play.
The fact is that this front seven, with Aldon Smith, Navarro Bowman, Justin Smith and some unknown guy named Patrick Willis, is very good, period. What they really excel at is getting at the quarterback, though they are more than adequate at stopping the run.
Between those guys, the occasional blitzing corner or safety and the skill the secondary has at covering, it's going to be awfully tough to find many open spaces for Christian Ponder to throw to before he is buried under red jerseys.
There are two ways to loosen the coverage, and the one that most plays to the strength of the offense is the ground attack (we'll hit the other in a minute).
Even though this is a very good run defense, who have they stopped? A still rusty Cedric Benson who the Packers basically gave up on when they fell behind and the cavalcade of mediocrity that is the Lions backfield.
The Vikings have Adrian Peterson, an athlete who functions at a whole other level than the two guys just mentioned in the previous paragraph.
What should the Vikings do on offense?
What's that you say? Peterson is still recovering from his calamitous knee injury? This is true; even Peterson says he's just at 95 percent.
However, as has been said in different variations before in this space, 95 percent of Peterson is 100 percent than most of the backs in the league.
Think it's tough to stop Bowman, and Willis and Smith-A or Smith-B (like Thing 1 and Thing 2)? It's just as tough to stop Peterson.
This will be his greatest test to date, and the knee still worries everyone. However, he will be fired up to prove himself.
And simply put, the Vikings need to run the ball. They need to pull the linebackers to the line, try to get the middle of the field open for the short and intermediate pass.
Because that's part two of the plan. The Lions were able to do it sporadically last week, but more than once inexplicably deviated from what was working. I call it the Boxing Plan.
Run, run, short pass, short pass, run, long pass. Jab, jab, jab, uppercut.
The only way to win this game is to move the ball, eat the clock up and score every time you have a drive. The only way to do that is to pull the front seven up and throw a screen or short/intermediate route behind them.
Use Percy Harvin, who will also add yards after a catch. Hit Kyle Rudolph with the ball right after he leaves the line.
And then throw a pass long to keep them honest.
It worked for the Lions for the most part, but where they fell short was a lack of good running back and a tendency for Stafford to hold the ball too long. And at times, the Niners dictated what the Lions did too much.
The key here is to work both plans of attack. Keep the run going; hit with the short passes. Don't do just one thing; do them both and execute well.
Of course, there are little things that need to be done which can tip the balance as well. Cut down on the flags. Ponder needs to make better reads and not pull the ball down too quickly. The line has to block consistently and the receivers cannot drop balls.
The core truth is, though, they need to move the chains, and the above gives them a good shot at doing so.
When the Vikings are on Defense
No easier a task is to slow down the 49ers offense. While middle of the pack when it comes to overall offense, this is in part because the passing offense is very conservative for all its effectiveness.
It centers on a tremendous ground attack, led by Frank Gore, though backed up very well by Kendall Hunter.
So first and foremost, the Vikings have to find a way to slow Gore down. They cannot get sucked into a the tight end trap that the Lions get killed with repeatedly last Sunday night. The safeties will have to step up and play some run defense, and the linebackers have to stay home and not leave their responsibility.
Of course, Gore/Hunter will kill you on a screen or short pass as well. So will tight end Vernon Davis, though he can also nail you across the middle.
The corners and linebacker have to recognize this and shut it down.
This will help them do the other thing required to beat this team—get Alex Smith on his back.
It's been done seven times this year, according to Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats, though we can have a healthy debate as to why that hasn't mattered as the offense churned on.
It seems to be just about impossible to rattle Smith right now, at least in such a way as to force a mistake out of him, as he's yet to throw an interception this year. I thought the Lions' front seven would get to him in such a way as to force a bad pass, but Smith has eluded that.
It would be optimal to force one this week, but let's be honest—it'd be a surprise.
The Vikings need to let him know they are there, though, and have to pressure him to make sure that he is forced to get the ball out quicker than he'd like. It's difficult because the ball comes out very quick for Smith, but even a fraction of a second could help.
What also would help is if the secondary stepped up its coverage. When the Lions were in solid coverage, they got to Smith and shut down plays. When they got sucked in or didn't read the play right, Smith completed a pass.
The Niners are very good at game planning at a defender's weakness, and the secondary is still a big question mark. So they can expect the 49ers to attack their secondary and try to split the zones, even attack them when they are in man.
It's really very simple, regardless of what the plan ultimately looks like—the Vikings need to have a perfect game. Not "virtually" a perfect game—a completely mistake-free outing. They cannot turn the ball over, they cannot miss tackles, they cannot blow routes, they cannot blow coverage.
The Niners are not perfect and they can be beat. If the Vikings want to have a chance, they need to be the team that does it first.
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