EAGAN — The Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers have only matched up twice during the Mike Zimmer era but there are enough similarities between the teams — from talent to identity to Mike Shanahan’s influence — that Saturday afternoon’s divisional playoff game has the potential to be an instant classic. Let’s have a look at the five most important battles (not quarterback-related) that will ultimately determine the outcome…(all stats via PFF and Pro-Football Reference)
— George Kittle ranked No. 4 in PFF run blocking grade among TEs. Juszczyk was the highest graded run blocking fullback.
— Jimmy Garoppolo has a 124.2 rating when throwing to Juszczyk. He averages 7.8 yards after catch. Kittle picks up 7.3 yards after catch, has a 115.9 rating on throws his way.
— Anthony Barr had one of his best games of 2018 against the 49ers in Week 1, giving up just one reception on three targets and creating one pressure on eight pass rushing snaps. Barr’s 85.2 PFF grade vs. the run was the best of his ’18 season.
— Barr ranked sixth among traditional linebackers in QB pressures with 21 on just 109 pass rush snaps. Eric Kendricks set a career high with 17 pressures (10th).
— Kendricks, on the other hand, posted his worst PFF grade of the ’18 season (32.6) and gave up five completions for 73 yards against. He did not have a PFF grade below 50 this year.
How much can the Vikings pressure the QB while rushing four? The Vikings created a great deal of their pressure against the Saints by mixing up the front defenders but the 49ers have done a terrific job of keeping Garoppolo free with 22 QBs being pressured at a higher rate this year. If the Vikings have to send extra defenders, it could pay off or open the door for big gains after catch.
Did the Vikings learn from the misdirection that Shanahan threw at them in Week 1 of 2018? Kittle and Kendricks are both player players now than they were then so whichever has taken the bigger steps forward might have the edge.
— Reiff had a bounce-back season in 2019, fitting well with the Kubiak-Stefanski system. He graded as the 26th of 60 tackles by PFF’s system this season and ranked 15th in fewest pressures allowed. Against the Saints he gave up just one QB hurry, zero hits and zero sacks.
— Reiff’s lowest graded games this year came against elite power rushers in Khalil Mack and Za’Darius Smith.
— Bosa finished fifth in QB pressures and fifth in QB hits.
–He also graded 12th of 62 against the run.
The Vikings were able to focus their attack on Cam Jordan last week but the 49ers aren’t a one-man band. Across from Bosa will be Arik Armstead, who tied for 16th in QB pressures and managed double-digit sacks. The 49ers did not regularly move around Bosa this season with just 139 of 777 snaps coming from the offense’s right side but it wouldn’t be shocking to see an extra wrinkle on the 49ers’ D-line, especially with a chance Dee Ford may play.
The other X-factor is the running game. Dalvin Cook made things difficult for the Saints’ rushers since they weren’t able to rush full bore last Sunday on a regular basis. If the Vikings succeed on the ground, it could mitigate the effect of Bosa.
— In the seven games without Adam Thielen, Diggs was targeted 49 times. He caught 33 passes for 577 yards — a 1,300-yard pace over 16 games.
— Per NFLNextGen Diggs had third highest percentage of team’s total air yards (41%) only behind Courtland Sutton and Michael Thomas.
— Throws into Sherman’s coverage resulted in a 52.9% completion, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 46.8 quarterback rating.
— The last time the Vikings played the 49ers, Sherman allowed just one catch on three targets for 18 yards. It was his highest grade of 2018.
Despite the fact that Diggs dominated with Thielen out, it’s harder to expect that he would do the same when facing off with a top-notch passing defense in San Francisco, especially if he’s matching up often with Sherman. The veteran corner ended up on the All-Pro team this year and remains nearly as dangerous as he was in his best Seattle days. Either way the Vikings will have to be patient and look to take deep shots when they come open. San Francisco is generally an aggressive team so when the opportunities arise Cousins and Diggs must connect.
— Rhodes rose to the challenge against Michael Thomas, allowing just three receptions in the Vikings’ win over the Saints and one was on a trick play with Taysom Hill launching the ball deep. The game was Rhodes’s third highest graded contest this year by PFF.
— Still opponents have completed 83.8% of throws his way and average 12.5 yards per completion into his coverage overall. When the Vikings played a Shanahan-style offense versus Denver he gave up 110 yards on just five throws his way.
— Garoppolo has thrown four interceptions when targeted Sanders.
— Of Sanders’ 502 yards on 36 catches as a 49er, 14 of the grabs and 269 came in two games.
In an article for The Athletic an anonymous coach said he expects Shanahan to attack Rhodes.
“If Xavier Rhodes plays, Kyle will go after him,” this offensive coach said. “They are going to try to put pressure on to get the safeties down in the box, which is what (Vikings coach Mike) Zimmer does, and then take shots off play-action.”
On a weekly basis it seemed Rhodes would leave the game with some type of ailment. Against the Saints he had a week off leading up to the wild card round, which may have offered some extra burst. If he’s struggling physically, that matchup might be exploited. Or we might even see Holton Hill as the rotational corner.
— Replacing injured Weston Richburg, Garland has allowed just three pressures and one sack over the past four weeks. Overall by PFF’s grading system he has just been mediocre with a 59.1 overall score.
— Over his career, Garland, who weighs just 305 pounds, has about a season’s worth of snaps and has given up 42 pressures. That would rank him second in the NFL for most allowed this year.
— Joseph only played 37 snaps last week with the Vikings rotating D-linemen but pressured Drew Brees twice.
— He hasn’t graded as an elite run stuffer this year but Joseph has rated as high as the sixth best run stuffer at his position in the past (2017).
The 49ers love to run the ball. They finished second to the Baltimore Ravens in total yards this season and spread the ball to multiple rushers. Like the Vikings, they also thrive in play-action situations. If the Vikings can slow down the run game with Joseph dominating Garland, they have a chance to make Garoppolo’s day very difficult. In 2018, the majority of the pressure from the Vikings came up the middle with Sheldon Richardson producing seven pressures.