It was third-and-3 at the 49ers’ 49-yard line late in the fourth quarter when No. 97 finally leapt off the television screen. Nick Bosa drove his blocker straight toward Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, who sidestepped the traffic and threw a 13-yard pass to Jordan Addison for a first down.
Bosa looked to the heavens — or in this case the roof of U.S. Bank Stadium — his arms outstretched. It was as if he couldn’t believe Cousins wasn’t in a crumpled heap on the ground.
As it turned out, Isaiah Oliver was called for defensive holding (which was declined), so it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. But it was representative of a shockingly futile effort by the 49ers’ defense Monday night in a 22-17 loss to the Vikings.
A national television audience had to be wondering what all the fuss was about when it came to the 49ers’ defense. Minnesota’s point total in no way represented the way it took apart a defense that believes it is among the NFL’s elite and up until a couple of weeks ago had looked the part.
Don’t be deceived by the Vikings’ relatively modest point total. Cousins had the 49ers’ defense on its heels all night, going 35-of-45 for 378 yards and two touchdowns. A defense that played three entire games of 239 yards or fewer gave up 275 in the first half alone and 452 yards in all.
All those pass attempts, yet Cousins was never sacked and never looked particularly bothered as Bosa and Co. failed to generate the pressure that was supposed to make them famous.
“We have a lot of really good players on the D-line and a lot invested in it,” Bosa said. “And you have to make the plays when they’re there.”
Bosa, Clelin Ferrell and Randy Gregory didn’t make much of an impact from the outside, nor did the highly paid and previously productive Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead from the interior.
And make no mistake, this wasn’t the Kansas City Chiefs or some other offensive juggernaut. Minnesota, 3-4, beat the lowly Chicago Bears 19-13 last week and needed a defensive touchdown to get it done as the offense produced all of 12 points.
Not only that, but Cousins was without the services of injured wideout Justin Jefferson, who is either No. 1 or 1A on any list you care to name.
With the 49ers shorn of wide receiver Deebo Samuel and left tackle Trent Williams and running back Christian McCaffrey playing with an injured oblique and struggling on the ground for the third straight game, the defense needed to step up and play to its reputation.
Instead, the 49ers forced exactly one Minnesota punt. And it wasn’t until the fourth quarter.
Cousins used the 49ers’ defense for target practice on third down, going 9-for-12 for 183 yards and both of his touchdowns to Addison on the money down.
“I was really disappointed we couldn’t get them off the field,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said.
One play just before halftime stood out, and it came on a defensive call that coordinator Steve Wilks will have to answer for with Shanahan if he hasn’t already.
After Brock Purdy engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 3-yard run by McCaffrey for the touchdown, the 49ers were within 10-7 despite the Vikings dictating the pace and controlling the tempo with occasional runs and a bevy of crossing routes and screens to wide open receivers.
The 49ers gave the momentum right back and never regained it again courtesy of a 60-yard Cousins-to-Addison touchdown that Charvarius Ward appeared to have intercepted, only to have Addison wind up with the ball and complete a stunning touchdown play.
When Addison crossed the goal line, there were seven seconds left in the half and the Vikings led 16-7 after Greg Joseph missed the extra point attempt.
It came against an all-out blitz, which meant there was no deep help once Addison got the ball away from Ward. It was a gamble for a defense that has used the blitz more often under Wilks than it did with DeMeco Ryans and Robert Saleh but still wouldn’t be described as a blitzing defense.
“(Cousins) has got to get rid of it right away and he threw it up, got a chance for a pick, didn’t come up with it, and they got a touchdown,” Shanahan said. “It was a real bad play by us.”
Asked about the call of a blitz with Minnesota so far from the goal line in the final minute, Shanahan said evenly, “That’s stuff we’ll discuss throughout this week. Obviously, I didn’t like the result.”
Both Shanahan and Bosa maintained the play could have been and probably should have been over had Ward held on to the ball. In the first half, he and Addison jointly came up with a pass on Minnesota’s first drive, except that time Ward made the interception.
.@espn_jordan. TO. THE. HOUSE.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) October 24, 2023
Middle linebacker Fred Warner also declined to point the finger at the decision made by Wilks and resisted the idea that the 49ers’ blitzing ways go against their previous identity as a team that primarily rushes with four.
Either way, it was much too risky a call in that situation.
It capped a first half where it seemed Kevin O’Connell, the Vikings’ play-calling head coach, was a step ahead of what Wilks was dialing up for the entire half.
It didn’t help the 49ers, as they did in last week’s 19-17 loss to Cleveland, missed more than their share of tackles and as a result were on the field for 10 more minutes than the offense.
“We couldn’t get off the field, plain and simple,” Warner said. “We started slow, and any time the quarterback is throwing for almost 400 yards, and I’m not sure what the third down percentage was (8-for-13), but too much leaky yardage. They scored on almost every drive that they were out there. Can’t let that happen.”
It won’t get any easier. The 49ers host Cincinnati on a short week heading into the bye. The Bengals have a downfield passer superior to Cousins in Joe Burrow, who has been hampered by a calf injury but had a week to get healthy with his 3-3 team on a bye.
Rest assured Burrow watched with interest Monday night. The 49ers will be watching the film with interest as well. It’s an extremely prideful unit that got taken to the woodshed in a big way, and how they respond against Cincinnati could determine whether it was either an anomaly or if the 49ers’ defense is overrated.
If the latter turns out to be the case, go ahead and cancel those reservations to Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas.