SANTA CLARA — If you squinted on Saturday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium, you would have seen Lambeau Field or Soldier Field or even US Bank Stadium three weeks ago. The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive meltdown in their 27-10 divisional playoff loss looked eerily familiar to other losses to talented defenses.
When the dust settled, the Vikings had just 147 yards of total offense, 3.3 yards per play, 21 total rushing yards, 21:33 time of possession, six sacks for 46 yards lost and 2-for-14 on third and fourth down combined.
All season long the Vikings’ success on offense was predicated on Dalvin Cook and the running game. Down the stretch their production slowed when Cook was battling injury. On the flip side, when he was at his best in October, they flourished. And in the first round of the playoffs, he grinded out 94 yards and played an integral role in the 26-20 win over the Saints.
“We had to run the ball and stop the [run] to be successful in the playoffs, especially against a team like this,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “The first thing you do is look yourself in the mirror and figure out what you could have done better in the running game and passing game. Obviously it wasn’t good enough.”
The only game the Vikings won this year in which they didn’t run for 100 yards was against Denver — and they required a 20-point second-half comeback.
“We were just not really able to get in a rhythm,” Cook said. “They were able to sit back and do what they do…they were able to fly around and make plays.”
“They got after us for sure,” guard Pat Elflein said. “We couldn’t get anything moving. We couldn’t get into a rhythm and that’s what we like to do…our hats go off to them. They came prepared and they beat us today.”
49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said their focus from the outset was slowing Cook.
“We knew they were going to attack us with the run game,” Buckner said. “We knew they were going to try us early. We had to shut it down early to make it the game we wanted to make it.”
Once the run threat is eliminated, second or third-and-long situations usually follow. That means plenty of opportunities to create a pass rush for the defense. San Francisco created all six sacks without sending extra rushers, per ESPN.
“When you are [going against] a good pass rush, the ball has to come out,” receiver Stefon Diggs said. “You just have to do what you can at the top of your route to get out of your breaks and make contested catches. Really it’s just about everybody doing their job because it’s tough on everybody.”
“It was a pretty good rush,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “They didn’t need to blitz much. They got good pressure with four guys.”
And once Cousins is forced to get the ball out quick, deep shots are taken away. At the offense’s peak the Vikings were explosive using play-action to go downfield. Cousins said the 49ers eliminated the bootlegs and the four-man rush forced a number of underneath throws even when they wanted to go deep. Zimmer said after the game that play calls went in for deep plays but they rarely came to fruition outside of a 41-yard touchdown to Diggs.
“It was a combination of having some third downs that were longer and not being productive on first and second down and then not converting third downs so that we weren’t able to stay on the field,” Cousins said. “They just do a good job of keeping things in front of them and forcing you to gain bit by bit.”
Cousins noted that the 49ers gave up the fewest explosive plays in the NFL.
“The last thing you want to do is force it,” Cousins said. “When they do give it a chance like we did to Diggs, you take it but for the most part you expect to have to chip away and just take what they give you.”
Early in the season the Vikings’ answer for getting Cousins on a roll was throwing screen passes. But nearly every time they attempted a screen, the 49ers flew to the ball and shut it down.
“I think they just rallied to it pretty well,” Zimmer said. “They played very hard defensively.”
And then there was the back-breaking turnover. Down 17-10, the Vikings had a chance to stay in the game and set up a compelling ending but Cousins threw the ball into the hands of Richard Sherman, setting up the 49ers for a 44-yard touchdown drive.
Thielen took responsibility for the pick.
“It was completely my fault,” Thielen said. “I didn’t cross his face and obviously [Cousins] trusted me to win on that route and make a play on the ball. I didn’t do that.”
“I was just trying to get it at him inside as he breaks across the corner’s face,” Cousins said.
What does it mean?
Over their last three playoff games, the Vikings’ offense has produced 43 total points. Naturally the locker room was not willing to get into the future just minutes after ending their season but Cousins responded to a question about believing they could be a championship-caliber team.
“I believe strongly in our organization, our coaches, our players and our locker room,” he said. “Today we fell short but there are 31 teams that will feel that way. You know that going in. When you strap it up in April and get going again, you know that 31 teams will feel like they fell short and weren’t good enough. Today we had to face that reality but I do love our team and the makeup of our team.”