SANTA CLARA — It honestly wasn’t long ago the 49ers won their first-ever playoff game at Levi’s Stadium, and it came at the Minnesota Vikings’ expense amid the twilight of Jan. 11, 2020.
Beating the Vikings in their return trip Sunday should pay dividends toward another 49ers’ playoff run.
The 49ers snapped an 0-4 home start by winning their last time in Levi’s Stadium – a Monday night, 31-10 rout of the Los Angeles Rams on Nov. 15 – and linebacker Fred Warner expects an atmosphere rivaling not only that victory but that 2019 season’s playoff opener against the Vikings.
“The fans have been great sticking by us through the good and the bad,” Warner said. “That Monday night game was electric. For sure, it was the same type of feeling of what we had the last time we played Minnesota.
“I expect the same this game. We’re on a two-game win streak, trying to make it three. It should be great.”
The 49ers (5-5) and the Vikings (5-5) are jockeying for one of the NFC’s three wild-card spots, with enough possible time to make a run in their respective division – up or down the standings.
“They’ve been battling back this season, just like we have,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Two teams that are probably playing their better ball of the year right now. … It’s going to be a real tough game.”
Here are five ways for the 49ers to toughen out a victory:
1. ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
As the 49ers win more and more, they’re delving further into their playbook. Boom, Garoppolo is a shotgun-formation savior. Bam, Deebo Samuel is a hybrid running back, and Brandon Aiyuk is a top-notch receiver.
Add in a healthy George Kittle, synchronize the blocking scheme among all the lineman, and, voila, the 49ers are full of surprises – or overdue participation medals.
So what else is up their sleeve with seven games remaining?
Trey Lance packages, perhaps. Maybe Jauan Jennings surfaces again, or Travis Benjamin’s deep-threat speed comes out to play.
All of which is to say that the 49ers’ desperate state is calling for desperate measures. When they pay off, you can even throw a fade pass to your All-Pro left tackle.
What will Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel cook up next? Stay tuned. Kirk Cousins, who broke into the NFL with Shanahan in Washington, said: “He does a very good job being multiple and ultimately just being creative with the plan to keep people off balance.”
2. RUN HARD, RUN FAR
Rushing over 40 times in each of the past two wins obviously exemplified the 49ers’ ball-hog mentality. Now it’s time now just for quantity but quality.
“We’ve been able to move the chains on third down, which allows you to keep smashing the ball as you say and playing smash-mouth football,” Shanahan said. “But it’s not like we’re just gashing people in the run game.”
Indeed, the 49ers’ longest run in Jacksonville (42 carries, 171 yards, 4.1-yard average) was Deebo Samuel’s 25-yard score. In routing the Rams, the 49ers (44 carries, 156 yards, 3.5-yard average) saw Elijah Mitchell get loose for 17-yard and 13-yard gains, their only ones over 10 yards.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is wary, saying: “They have tremendous play makers and they do a great job with the scheme. They’ve got guys going every which way. A lot of eye candy. We have to make sure we line up right and go play football.”
They’ll be lining up with their best defensive linemen: Danielle Hunter (injured reserve), Dalvin Tomlinson (COVID reserve) and likely Everson Griffen (personal health issue).
Zimmer said he spent Tuesday night studying film of the 49ers’ offense and watched over 20 plays involving Samuel, noting: “For the most part, he’s a receiver. He’s terrific with the ball in his hands and a strong runner.”
3. DENY DALVIN
Early leads the past two games meant the 49ers’ run defense didn’t face much of a threat on the ground.
That could change here with the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook, the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher (734 yards, four touchdowns). He has a trio of 100-yard games this season, topped by a 140-yard effort at Carolina.
“He’s one of the best at being a one-cut back, being decisive, getting downhill, being explosive through those holes,” Warner said. “If one guy is out of a gap, he’s going to find it and exploit us.”
Cook ran for 94 and 86 yards in their past two wins, following a civil lawsuit by an ex-girlfriend accusing him of assault, battery and false imprisonment in a 2020 incident.
Cook hasn’t had rushing success in two games with the 49ers, gathering 40 yards (16 carries) in a 2018 win at Minnesota and just 18 yards (nine carries) in the January 2020 divisional playoff loss to the 49ers.
The Vikings have switched centers, so look for an interior push by the 49ers’ D.J. Jones, Arik Armstead, Kentavius Street and Kevin Givens to clog any running lanes up the middle.
4. CORNERBACK CHALLENGE
The 49ers’ cornerbacks seem to have weathered an early-season storm, replete with penalties and chunk plays. But Emmanuel Moseley, Josh Norman and nickel back K’Waun Williams are in for a double doozy this game.
Williams might be most responsible for containing Adam Thielen, one of the NFL’s sharpest route runners
Second-year receiver Justin Jefferson was on the 49ers’ draft radar last year. He went No. 22 overall, and the 49ers drafted Brandon Aiyuk three spots later.
Shanahan said of Jefferson: “We were huge fans. He’s one of the best receivers in the league, if not the best. He’s been unbelievable. I love the style of play. It reminds me of Emmanuel Sanders back in the day.”
Jefferson carved up the Green Bay Packers’ zone coverage in Sunday’s 34-31 win, racking up 169 yards (eight catches, two touchdowns). Two weeks ago, he had nine receptions for 143 wins in a West Coast win, a 27-20 triumph over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Emmanuel Moseley and Josh Norman will have their hands full, so to speak. They must avoid grabbing Jefferson and adding to the 49ers’ NFL-high 17 defensive pass-interference calls.
5. DON’T GET SLOPPY
Both teams are back in the NFC race largely because they’ve safeguarding the football and coming through on clutch downs.
The 49ers committed no turnovers in wins this past month over the Bears, the Rams and the Jaguars. What happens otherwise: seven turnovers combined in recent losses to the Colts and the Cardinals.
Even though the 49ers’ offense ranks 22nd on third-down efficiency (37.9 percent), they converted on 14-of-26 such plays the past two wins; they were 1-of-11 against in the 31-17 debacle against Arizona last month.
The Vikings’ third down offense is similar: 38.8-percent efficiency, but 14-of-27 the past two wins; they were 5-of-14 and 1-of-13 in preceding losses to Baltimore and Dallas.
Their offense has a plus-six turnover margin, mainly because Cousins has had only 2 of 374 passes intercepted (none in his past 195). They have lost four fumbles.
Also of note, the 49ers lead the league in red zone efficiency: 77.8-percent of their positions end in touchdowns, though they settled for a field goal on last game’s 20-play, 13-minute opening drive.
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Author: Cam Inman