For team’s that suffered through a defeat on Sunday, the following Wednesday can’t come soon enough. Wednesday is the day NFL teams officially flip their calendars from one week to the next and begin on-field preparations for the upcoming opponent.
The Vikings upcoming opponent is the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers, the defending champions of the NFC West who were just moments away from a berth in last year’s Super Bowl before losing to the NY Giants at home in the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco is a team with impressive wins at Green Bay in Week 1 and then at home against the Detroit Lions in Week 2.
Here are a few storylines we’ll be chasing this week as the Vikings prepare to battle the 49ers at Mall of America Field on Sunday…
1. 49ers Defense Poses Nasty Challenge
In their two early-season wins, this 49ers defense held Green Bay – last year’s highest-scoring offense at 35.0 points per game – to just 7 points through three quarters of play, and they held Lions QB Matthew Stafford – a 5,000-yard passer a season ago – to just 230 passing yards and one touchdown. Justin Smith and Aldon Smith team to form a stout presence against the run and effective pass rushing from the edge of the 3-4 alignment, inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis roam the middle of the defense, and both CB Carlos Rogers and S Dashon Goldson hold down a secondary with sound coverage ability and a physical presence against the run.
The Vikings have weapons to go at this defense. Percy Harvin – more on him in a bit – is good enough to produce against any defense, Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart won’t be afraid to challenge the run defense, and it will be fun to watch TE Kyle Rudolph battle these talented and fierce LBs. This is a very good 49ers defense, no doubt, but the Vikings won’t back down just because many think they’re outmatched.
2. How Will The 49ers Defend Percy Harvin?
This just in: Percy Harvin is really good. He has been the heart and soul of the Vikings offense, and he will surely be a focal point for the 49ers this week in their preparations. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be neutralized. Coming off his performance in Week 1 – 192 combined yards on 14 total touches – Harvin was certainly priority #1 for the Colts last week. It didn’t matter. Harvin had a career-high 12 receptions last Sunday, and he’s now hauled in 18 of the 21 passes Christian Ponder has sent his way. There’s no question the 49ers will focus on Harvin this week and on Sunday. The question is, how will they try to take him out of the game? And more importantly for the Vikings, how will Harvin be utilized against this talented defense?
3. How Will The Vikings Defend Vernon Davis?
The Vikings have surrendered TDs to TEs in each of the first two games, with Mercedes Lewis finding paydirt in Week 1 and Dwayne Allen striking early last week. If the Vikings don’t fix that issue by Sunday, Vernon Davis could wreck the game. In two games this season, Davis has 8 receptions for 116 yards and 3 TDs. He has the body and strength of a TE, but he runs and catches like a WR. It’s entirely possible that Davis is the top priority – in conjunction with stopping the run (always a top priority in the NFL) – for the Vikings defense heading into this game.
4. Willis Is San Francisco’s Man in the Middle
The 49ers defense features plenty of talented players, one of which is arguably the best inside LB in the NFL – Patrick Willis. On multiple occasions, I’ve heard Vikings RB Adrian Peterson explain that Willis is one of the fiercest hitters in the League and one of the players Peterson respects the most. The Vikings found Peterson – the cornerstone of their offense – with the 7th pick of the 2007 draft, and the 49ers found Willis – the cornerstone of their defense – with the 11th pick in the same draft. On Sunday they’ll square off once again, the third time the Vikings and 49ers have met since each player’s rookie season (the Vikings are 2-0 in those games).
5. Are There Any Parallels Between Alex Smith And Christian Ponder?
San Francisco QB Alex Smith was much maligned early in his career, as the former No. 1 overall pick labored through his first six NFL seasons. Smith endured a seemingly countless number of coaching and coordinator changes, and it took him five seasons to complete 60% of his passes or register a passer rating over the pedestrian rate of 75.0. But the 49ers patience and belief in Smith has paid off. Smith has blossomed into a calculated-but-cunning passer. Last season while guiding San Francisco to a 13-3 record, Smith completed 61.3% of his passes and boasted a clean 17-5 TD-INT ratio. His rock-solid play has shifted the perception others have of him from a passer who just manages the game to a passer who helps the 49ers win games.
Ponder, also a 1st-round pick, is only 13 games into his career – not even a full season of playing experience yet – so it’s premature to compare his path to the one Smith took. Ponder is completing a League-high 75.8% of his passes and has a passer rating of 110.6, so it’s unlikely it will take him six seasons to reach the 60% completion rate and 75.0+ passer rating milestones mentioned above. And we certainly hope Ponder enjoys the synergy of a coaching staff with little change. The point here is a more general one – have patience and confidence in your young 1st-round passer. Allowing him to develop will pay dividends if you can build a solid team around him. I think the Vikings are on the right track with Ponder.
6. Vikings Must Be Buttoned Up In Kick Coverage
The 49ers put up an incredible statistic in 2011 – they had 37 offensive drives that started at midfield or in plus territory. Thirty-seven. A big reason for that are San Francisco’s tremendous return teams. The 49ers ranked 1st in kickoff return average at 27.2, with Ted Ginn handling the bulk of those (29 returns for 800 yards – a 27.6-yard average), and they ranked 4th in average drive start (23.9-yardline). Also, the 49ers ranked 5th in punt return average (12.4 yards), with Ginn handling most of those as well. Ginn remains the 49ers return man, so the Vikings kick coverage groups have their work cut out for them. Here’s the good news: the Vikings rank 4th in opponents average drive start after a kickoff (19.4-yardline), and they rank 6th in opponents punt return average (6.2). This will be a good battle to watch all game.
7. Vikings Defensive Line To Face Solid 49ers Offensive Line
Speaking of a good battle to watch all day, don’t forget to check out Vikings DE Jared Allen going against San Francisco LT Joe Staley. Both are Pro Bowlers – Allen has 4 and Staley made his 1st appearance last year – and both are nasty. Allen will be angry, as he’s still looking for his first sack of the season. Staley will be determined to keep it that way and let the Detroit Lions worry about giving up Allen’s first sack of 2012. Aside from Allen vs. Staley, though, there is a good matchup in the trenches. Playing next to Staley at LG is Mike Iupati, a 2010 1st-round pick out of Idaho, playing at center is Jonathan Goodwin (151 career games, 78 starts) and anchoring the right side at tackle is another former 1st-rounder, Anthony Davis.
8. Using The Dome-Field Advantage
Historically the Vikings have been tough to beat at home. They are 158-88 (.642) all-time at Mall of America Field, and when the Vikings give their fans something to cheer about, that building gets loud. The noise can make it difficult for opposing teams to operate. It’s common for coaches or players who join the Vikings from other teams to tell the rest of us how hard it is to play at Mall of America Field when the place is rocking. Last year, though, the Vikings didn’t play well at home – they were 1-7 at Mall of America Field – and that decreased their advantage in the building. If the Vikings are to pull an upset this week, they’ll need to play well early to encourage the crowd to be loud and make it tougher on Alex Smith and Co.
9. Randy Moss Returns To Minnesota
49ers receiver Randy Moss spent plenty of time on the Vikings sideline at Mall of America Field, playing for the Purple from 1998-2004 and again in 2010. On Sunday, though, Moss will appear in the stadium as a member of the visiting 49ers. It will be interesting to observe the home crowd’s reaction to Moss, from the time Moss appears on the field for pre-game warm-ups to the time the 49ers leave the field following the game. What will Moss do if he scores? What will he do if he doesn’t? You just never know with Moss.
One thing you do know, though, is that Moss will go down as one of the greats in Vikings history. He was always a fan favorite – and remains the favorite of some fans to this day – and he ranks second in Vikings history behind Cris Carter with 587 receptions, 9,316 receiving yards and 92 touchdowns.
Tags: Adrian Peterson, Christian Ponder, Jared Allen, Kyle Rudolph, Percy Harvin, Toby Gerhart
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