It took just one quarter for the San Francisco 49ers to lay waste to the Minnesota Vikings‘ Super Bowl hopes. Many prognosticators around the country picked the Vikings to steal another road playoff victory, this time over the 49ers. However, the raucous home crowd at Levi’s Stadium did not disappoint in San Francisco’s first playoff game at the venue. Today we take a look at the three keys that propelled the 49ers into the NFC championship game.
Hello Old Friends
The week off for San Francisco allowed a few familiar faces to return to the field. Jaquiski Tartt, Dee Ford, and Kwon Alexander all made their anticipated debuts. Alexander’s inclusion came as a surprise for many as the linebacker suffered a torn pectoral muscle on Halloween night. Less than three months later, Alexander returned and played a crucial role in shutting down the Minnesota offense. His return allowed fellow linebacker, Dre Greenlaw, to move to the weakside. The speed at the position was noticeable as it was difficult for Minnesota to attack the edges of the San Francisco defense.
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Tartt had missed the last few games and his absence was noticeable as the 49ers struggled to cover opposing tight ends. On Saturday, Tartt effectively shut down the underneath throws to the tight end and was a major boost to protecting against the run. Meanwhile, the return of Ford led to a resurgence for the defensive line. Ford and the San Francisco pass rush finished with six sacks on the game and accounted for nearly a dozen more pressures. The speed off the edge put pressure on the Minnesota offensive line and opened up opportunities for the rest of the pass rushers. As the game progressed, the pass rush laid waste to the Vikings offensive line.
Pounded into Submission
To start the second half, the 49ers received the kickoff and proceeded to run the ball down the throats of the Minnesota defense. On their second drive of the third quarter, the 49ers took eight plays, all on the ground, to extend their lead with a Tevin Coleman touchdown. San Francisco ran the ball a total of 47 times on Saturday, finishing with 186 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Coleman led the group with 105 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns. Raheem Mostert followed with 58 yards on 12 carries. San Francisco controlled both the clock and the game with the ground game.
San Francisco took advantage of the Vikings decision to play Cover-2 in the secondary. Keeping two safeties high, the 49ers were able to out-leverage the Vikings with just seven blockers. Both George Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk excelled with their run blocking. On multiple occasions, Kittle sealed the edge and allowed Juszczyk to pull through the hole and seal the inside. While the 49ers did not hit on many runs of 10 yards or more, the ground game found a consistent five to six yards on nearly every play. To put it simply, the 49ers seemingly killed the will of the Vikings with each run.
While the 49ers found steady success on the ground, Minnesota struggled to find any opening. San Francisco succeeded in forcing the Vikings offense to play one-dimensional football by shutting down the ground game. To make matters worse, this was done without any additional help along the line of scrimmage. The San Francisco front seven swarmed Minnesota running back, Dalvin Cook. In total, Cook ran the ball a total of nine times for 18 yards. One of those runs went for six yards. As a unit, Minnesota rushed the ball 10 times for 21 yards. It quickly became apparent for the Vikings that it would be a waste to run the football on this San Francisco defense.
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The speed of the San Francisco linebackers prevented Cook from bouncing runs outside. The penetration and quickness of the defensive line helped slow run plays from the onset. It was a master class on how to slow down a lethal running back. It was a common sight to see Minnesota attempt an outside zone to the wide side of the field, then see lineman Nick Bosa or Arik Armstead screaming in from the opposite side to bring down Cook. Joining the fun was the recently signed defensive tackle, Earl Mitchell. The veteran earned his keep on Saturday as he and fellow tackle, Sheldon Day, were solid at the point of attack and did well to disrupt the running lanes.
On to the NFC Championship Game
The crowd at Levi Stadium was vocal. At one point, Nick Bosa lay on the turf with training staff surrounding him when the crowd began chanting, “Bosa! Bosa! Bosa!” The rookie lineman soon popped up and ran off the field to the delight of his teammates and the crowd. Neither the home crowd or the 49ers themselves disappointed on Saturday. It was a throughout domination of the Vikings as both sides of the ball laid waste to the team that had previously knocked off the New Orleans Saints. Now the 49ers stare at the next challenge, a date with the Green Bay Packers for the chance to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. The crowd will be loud and eager to watch the 49ers lay waste to another opponent.
– Ryan Adverderada is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage 49ers. He also covered the Arizona Cardinals for Full Press Coverage. Like and follow on Follow @ryanadverderada