Breaking Down Minnesota Vikings' Blueprint for Exploiting 49ers Defense
David vs. Goliath. Batman vs. Superman. Captain vs. Tennille. Anybody vs. the New York Yankees.
All battles between a large, intimidating favorite and a smaller or allegedly underpowered opponent who ends up winning.
The Vikings shocked the NFL Sunday with a very solid win over the still very good (no matter what anyone tells you) San Francisco 49ers. They did it with great game-planning and very good execution, with a few lucky bounces to help out.
Here are the important factors on the offensive side of the ball from Sunday's win.
Across the board, the Vikings came ready for a street fight.
From the moment games ended in Week 2, the media from every outlet figured the Vikings 1) had no chance in this game and 2) were not going to be able to match up with the hard style of play San Francisco brings to the table.
As Tom Pelissero of 1500 ESPN pointed out, the coaching staff and veterans wisely made sure every player on the Vikings knew the world was against them.
So, the Vikings came to brawl, and they did.
The offensive line struggled to contain the very intense pass-rush from the Niners and didn't get a whole lot of push or open many holes for Adrian Peterson, but it more than held its own and, toward the latter stages of the game, did more than that.
The Vikings allowed three sacks in the first two games. Know how many they allowed on Sunday? Zero.
No sacks and one quarterback hit.
Don't undersell the physical style of play the line had, which really did serve to protect Ponder.
Defensive line? Same thing. Jared Allen and Chad Greenway were in the backfield a ton, sacking Alex Smith three times.
How many times was Smith sacked in the first two games? According to ProFootballFocus' Premium Stats? Zero.
As I am sure the Packers and Lions can attest, it sucks to be hit. Well, Ponder knows that, too, let's be honest.
Finally, on the defense, the ground game for the 49ers was cut short, and Frank Gore was hammered a lot more than he had been in previous games.
If you are going to beat San Francisco, you are going to have to contain the ground game and Gore—the Vikings played Gore tough and hit him hard every time he had the ball.
The result was his worst game in this young season, though some of that was most definitely because the 49ers ran the ball less than they have so far this year.
The physical play also was evident in the way Percy Harvin went about his business. When kids are first taught how to play football, most coaches remind them that it's better to deliver the hit than get hit.
There will be contact on both sides, but better to be the one instigating it, even as an offensive player.
Harvin delivered a lot of hits.
For a team that prided itself on a physical style of play, it must have come as a bit of a shock to the Niners to have someone come at them like that.
The aggression paid off.
Run, Adrian, Run
Just looking at statistics, Peterson wasn't phenomenally effective running the ball. A 3.4 yards-per-carry average for 86 yards and no touchdowns don't make for a day for the ages.
Yet Peterson had a big impact on this game in two ways.
The Vikings pounded at the Niners all game, and it wore down the Niners defensive line. The line wasn't gasping for air, but you could see it was a step slower.
In the fourth quarter, Peterson had a few longer runs, most notably the 20-yard run he had in the fourth quarter. On that play, the Niners tried to arm tackle him a few times, normally not something you see from them on defense, even at the end of the game.
For them also to have the Vikings offense pinned back on the 5-yard line and allow Peterson to get that many yards is, again, something you don't see much and a testament to where their energy level was at.
The other way that a continued dedication to running Peterson paid off was pulling the defense toward the line, out of the middle of the field and in the flat.
Maybe this won't work with an average (or, one might argue, below-average) back such as the New York Jets' Shonn Greene next week, but a running back such as Peterson is too much of a threat to let the defensive line take him on solo.
Peterson, as evidenced by the above 20-yard run, is a threat to break off a big run at any time.
The shift the 49ers had because of Peterson and the constant run plays opened up space for Ponder to find his receivers and for his receivers to find room to run (we'll get to that later).
It can't be overstated how frustrating this setup must have been for the Niners. Run defense is one of their strengths. They pride themselves on it.
At some point it must have been baffling and—I doubt they would cop to this—demoralizing to some extent that the Vikings just wouldn't go away. They wouldn't yield.
Even when Toby Gerhart started coughing up the ball on every carry, the Vikings refused to stop running the ball.
In the battle of wills that is an NFL game, the Vikings may have used the run to chip away at the San Francisco 49ers.
Last week, when I talked about the Vikings running it at the teeth of the Niner defense, this is what I envisioned. Beating on them, not until they shattered because that was unlikely, but until they were just sick of seeing Peterson and worn down.
The Vikings didn't throw a completed pass of more than 24 yards. Ponder threw a few balls long, but nothing huge and nothing that was caught. Most passes were of the 5-10-yard variety, and some were in the flat or even screens behind the line.
It's very similar to the game plan the 49ers seemed to work against the Lions and Packers, really. A bunch of solid runs, a shorter pass or two and a medium throw once the defense was loosened up.
It's been said before, but the way you can overcome a fierce pass-rush is with short, quick passes. There were a lot of very quick releases and passes by Ponder, especially early in the game. They didn't all work (one to Stephen Burton caught the receiver completely unaware), but they put the defense on notice that they were not easily getting to Ponder.
A great example of this happened on the first drive.
On the play, Michael Jenkins set up to the left of the offensive line, while Percy Harvin lined up to the right.
Harvin went into motion and headed through the backfield as Jenkins went on his deep route, taking the cornerback with him.
As you can see, the entire defensive line was focused on Ponder, and nobody was anywhere near Harvin. Ponder delivered a nice ball to Harvin, who had nobody in front of him for nearly 20 yards.
While many of these plays didn't go nearly as long, they were successful, and more than once the Niners got sucked in much like here, and the play went away and behind them.
The short game played nearly perfectly by the Vikings made it incredibly hard for the 49ers to get at Ponder.
It wasn't just Harvin, either. While not nearing Harvin's 11 targets, tight end Kyle Rudolph has emerged as a huge factor in this offense. Both touchdowns were sent his way, and if you want to know how locked into Rudolph Ponder was, check out these two screenshots.
Peterson was wide open. I mean, nobody was anywhere near him, while Rudolph was very well-covered. A pinpoint throw and a fantastic grab by Rudolph turned what should have been at best an incompletion (at worst an interception) into a touchdown.
Hey. When you're on, you're on.
The Vikings would do well to take a hard look at what they did offensively in this game and replicate it going forward. Of course, they will want to use Jerome Simpson as a vertical threat, something they sorely need.
However, as the offensive line is coming together, they would benefit from the short game and a whole lot of Adrian Peterson.
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