MINNEAPOLIS – One player in the 49ers’ locker room discreetly said he was a bit bummed this past week. He wanted to go undefeated this season. Heck, who didn’t?
Instead, the 49ers fell victim to football’s on-any-given-Sunday axiom in Cleveland. They were unable to complete a last-drive comeback and fell for the first time this season, 19-17 last Sunday to the Browns.
That did not devastate nor demoralize the 49ers (5-1). But that could change Monday night in Minnesota if they lose back-to-back games on the road for the first time since 2018.
The Vikings (2-4) lack star power around quarterback Kirk Cousins and they’re 0-3 at home. If that isn’t inviting enough for the 49ers, maybe a prime-time spotlight will serve as an elixir. Cousins, after all, is 2-10 on Monday nights in his career.
The 49ers won twice under the lights in their 5-0 start: 30-12 over the New York Giants and 42-10 over the Dallas Cowboys, both at Levi’s Stadium.
“When the lights are on, it’s really fun and easy to get your switch flipped,” tight end George Kittle said. “Going back to the Midwest, it’s going to be a fun time. To hear that ‘Skol’ chant real loud, it’s going to be an incredible atmosphere, against a very strong offense, and a defense that is pressuring more than anybody in the NFL.”
Here are five ways the 49ers can snap a six-game losing streak in Minnesota that traces back to 1994, their last Super Bowl-winning season:
1. BLITZ OR NO BLITZ
No defense is blitzing more than the Vikings, on over 60 percent of their pass snaps. That is a daunting assignment for a 49ers’ offensive line that might have to change its starting unit for the first time this season; left tackle Trent Williams (ankle) is doubtful, so Jaylon Moore figures to make his sixth start in three years.
Purdy will be on alert regardless. Part of his instant success have been his counterattacks to the blitz, from his first significant action last December against Miami to the Giants’ 85-percent blitz rate in Week 3. Here’s the catch: the Vikings don’t just blitz, but they cause further chaos with the illusion of sending extra pass rushers.
“Obviously, they love to bring the whole house and all the zero looks that they’ve got,” Purdy said, “And then (they’re) able to bluff out of that and stuff. So, they do a really good job with it. On film, it may look like, ‘Oh man, there’s some space and stuff,’ but they do a good job with bracketing stuff and sort of just anticipating what teams are going to try to do.”
Seemingly each week has pitted the 49ers against a marquee pass rusher, and this game’s is Danielle Hunter, whose eight sacks are tied for the NFL lead with the Steelers’ T.J. Watt. The Vikings aren’t all that imposing, however, and Marcus Davenport just went on Injured reserve.
Minnesota produced five sacks in each of their wins this season, 21-13 at Carolina and 19-13 last Sunday at Chicago. Linebacker Jordan Hicks led the last win with a 42-yard fumble return for a touchdown, 10 tackles and an interception. Six-time Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith has three sacks.
2. RE-RUN TIME
The 49ers offense still clouts the NFL’s third-best rushing attack (148.3 yards per game) but mystery surrounds whether Christian McCaffrey will play or how much and effective he’d be. He’s questionable with an oblique injury that kept him out of the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss at Cleveland.
McCaffrey has led the NFL in rushing through each week of this season, and he’s averaging 5 yards per carry (110 carries, 553 yards, seven touchdowns). His 23 receptions are the 49ers’ second-most behind Brandon Aiyuk’s 25.
Deebo Samuel is not an option to fill in as a rusher. A CT scan revealed a fractured shoulder, and he is out through at least the Week 9 bye.
Thus, behind McCaffrey are Elijah Mitchell, Jordan Mason and Ty Davis-Price.
Mitchell’s Sept. 28 knee injury kept him out two games and opened the door for second-year back Jordan Mason to prove more than a closing-time act. Mason is averaging 5.6 yards per carry (21 carries, 117 yards) and he’s scored in each of the past two games. Mitchell, the 2021 49ers’ leading rusher as a rookie, has just 49 yards on 18 carries this season, and three catches for two yards.
3. STOP VIKINGS RUN
A strong run defense is the 49ers’ hallmark of their playoff runs. Last Sunday was not a playoff-caliber run defense. The 49ers, without linebacker Dre Greenlaw, allowed the Browns to churn out 160 yards on 34 carries. Greenlaw is expected to return from his hamstring injury.
“They’re going to attack us on the perimeter this week. We know that,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “We’ve got to make sure that we set edges and we’ve got guys over the top. Let’s run to the football.”
The Vikings released four-time Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook in June, and this might be the game they turn more to Rams’ reject Cam Akers. Otherwise, Alexander Mattison scare the 49ers, who haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher the past 33 games? “Mattison, at times, you blink, he looks like Cook, the way he runs the ball,” Wilks said. “So they’re going to do a great job in really trying to establish the run, and then quickly do what they do best, which is putting the ball in the air.”
4. CONTAIN COUSINS
The Vikings have the NFL’s third-most prolific passing attack, and Kirk Cousins leads the league with completions, attempts and touchdowns, though his 14 scoring strikes are tied with Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa. Star receiver Justin Jefferson is on Injured Reserve (hamstring), but rookie speedster Jordan Addison has four touchdown catches. Left guard Ezra Cleveland is out, so Dalton Risner will start in his place.
Instead of down-field bombs, the 49ers pass defense will be on alert for the underneath routes, as part of their bend-don’t-break approach.
“We know we’re going to get screens. That’s what they do,” Wilks added. “So that’s all been a point of emphasis, just really guys making plays when given the opportunity.”
The Vikings’ minus-7 turnover ratio is tied for the NFL’s third-worst mark. They’ve lost a NFL-high nine fumbles, including at least one in each game except for their Oct. 1 win at Carolina. Cousins accounts for four of those lost fumbles, and he’s been intercepted four times.
The 49ers are a NFL-best plus-eight in the takeaway/turnover department; their defense has 10 interceptions but just one fumble recovery, and their offense has just three turnovers. Another reflection of those turnover discrepancies is each team’s average time of possession: the 49ers clock in at 32:46 (fourth best) and the Vikings are at 26:15 (NFL worst).
5. TIGHT END MATCHUP
T.J. Hockenson has 36 receptions, but his only two touchdowns came in one game. George Kittle, his 49ers’ counterpart, has half as many catches, and all three of his catches came in one game. Both are Iowa products, both train together in the offseason, and both could be major factors this game.
“I’m selling his secrets to our DBs at a low rate. I’m kidding,” Kittle said. “But I love everything about T.J. and I really respect his game, how he plays it.
“He’s in an offense, while they’re missing Justin Jefferson, T.J. is a very formidable threat that’s getting fed the ball a lot,” Kittle added. “If I had him on my fantasy team, I’d probably start him this week, but he’s going against our defense and I’m giving them tips to slow him down, so I have a better National Tight Ends Day.”
It is the fourth year of that so-called holiday (originated by former 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s quip to Kittle), and it’s intended to fall on the fourth Sunday every October. Rather than be offended at playing on a Monday night, Kittle realized “I celebrate it every single day, so it’s OK with me.”
Kittle is coming off the lowest receiving output of his career, having made just a 1-yard catch. Two weeks earlier, he had only a 9-yard catch against Arizona. Sandwiched between those games was his career-high three-touchdown show (on three total receptions) in the 42-10 blowout of Dallas. “George has had to help out with protection, and he’s done such a good job of doing that role,” Purdy said. “…We still have a whole basically second half of the season coming up where it’s like, man, George can definitely get involved.”