My five big questions on the Vikings-Niners game.
1. Can the offensive line hold up against the San Francisco front?
The Vikings O-line has done a pretty good job in pass protection so far this year. Of course they’ve been helped out by the offensive game plan which has favored shorter, quicker passes over anything that might require Christian Ponder to hang around in the pocket. Still, you have to give them props. They’ve held up well through two games. Of course they haven’t really been tested by a great pass rushing team yet. Jacksonville and Indianapolis-minus-Dwight Freeney are not exactly bringing huge heat. This week they will face a team that can get after it. San Francisco’s defense is the gold standard right now and that all starts with the guys up front. Justin Smith is about the best penetrating interior lineman in the league and they have a sack-happy 3-4 edge rusher in Aldon Smith (assuming he can make it to the game without being stabbed or crashing his car). That Aldon Smith vs. Matt Kalil match-up will be one to watch. Kalil has been very stout in pass protection so far but he hasn’t seen a speed rusher of Smith’s ability. Kalil did get burned by Smith once in the preseason game but of course that doesn’t count now. That match-up will be a good measure of Kalil’s progress. The other match-up everyone will focus on is Justin Smith vs. Charlie Johnson. If the past two games are any indication, Charlie could be in for a long day. The Vikes will likely try to help Charlie as much as possible with double teams and leave backs in to block so Christian Ponder doesn’t get killed when guys inevitably come shooting through. That up-the-middle rush has really been the only big issue so far in terms of pass protection. It doesn’t help that John Sullivan has been nursing a bad ankle. Of course the Niners present a whole load of other challenges just by being a 3-4 team. The Vikings have struggled mightily against 3-4 defenses the last couple years, especially in their run blocking. Obviously, the Vikings need to run the ball or they will have zero shot against probably the best defense in the league.
2. Will Christian Ponder get to take some deep shots?
The Vikings dialed up only a handful of deep passes against Indianapolis and Christian Ponder elected not to pull the trigger on them because there was no one open. Now honestly, I don’t know what you do when your receivers flat out can’t get open. Get different receivers. Literally, that’s the only solution. If Christian Ponder couldn’t find any windows against Indy he’s certainly not going to find any against San Francisco, who like to man up with their corners. To put it bluntly, I’m not looking for a big game by Devin Aromashodu or Michael Jenkins this week. And frankly I don’t think either of those men was expected to play a big role this year. John Carlson on the other hand was expected to play a big role and he has been MIA so far. He was so off the map against Indy he wasn’t even targeted. Not once. I’m no football expert, but it seems to me if you’ve got a team playing man on the outside against receivers who can’t get open, you have to hit them over the middle. So your tight ends become big. This would therefore be a good week for John Carlson to produce some evidence that he deserves to be paid what he’s being paid. It’s going to have to be guys like Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph and of course Percy Harvin, because again, those outside receivers are not going to have any daylight. It would be nice if the Vikes had a back they could throw to out of the backfield as well but, oops, they don’t.
3. Can the run game really make an impact?
Adrian Peterson dished out some of his typical bravado the other day, saying the 49ers haven’t faced a run offense like the Vikings’ yet, so they better look out (or words to that effect). Well that’s true enough Adrian. So far San Francisco has faced Green Bay and Detroit, two teams that don’t try to run it at all. This week they’ll face a team that tries to run it because they can’t pass it for crap. The Vikings have been very effective running the ball too. After two games they’re ranked 13th in the league. That sounds okay until you realize the Vikings are one of only about 3 teams that actually care about that ranking. For most teams running the ball is just a matter of keeping defenses honest but for the Vikings it’s actually relevant that they be efficient in that area. And so far they’ve been only slightly above average. But San Fran has gone soft defensively after seeing the Lions and Packers I guess. I hope Adrian gets a chance to back up his words with some big runs but sadly the Vikings do not have a good recent history of run blocking against 3-4 teams. Just look at last week against Indy. The Colts supposedly had a bad run defense going into that game but the Vikes could barely dent it. Adrian’s long run in that game was 6 yards. That’s not what I call explosiveness.
4. Is the defense planning on covering someone?
The coverage got so bad against Indy that Antoine Winfield, who normally doesn’t say a word, actually stood up to address the team on Monday. I don’t know exactly what Antoine said but it was probably something like “Will one of you so-and-sos please cover somebody one of these days so we don’t look like total ass out there? And is there any possibility that we could can these ill-timed blitzes that end up leaving guys 15 yards open? And would someone learn how to track a receiver in the seam?” Things probably aren’t going to get better this week. San Francisco wasn’t exactly a big-time passing team last year but they took steps to remedy that and now have lots of receivers to throw at you, including a fellow named Randy Moss who can still run right by you if you’re not careful. Moss isn’t the guy you have to worry about though. Michael Crabtree is emerging as the true weapon among the receivers and of course there’s also tight end Vernon Davis who is as much of a deep threat as anyone on the roster. And don’t let anyone tell you any stories about Alex Smith not being a good quarterback. True, the 49ers still aren’t exactly a fearsome passing team, ranking toward the bottom of the league, but if they smell blood in the water they’re certainly capable of ripping up a bad defense. And at times this year the Vikings have been a bad defense. Oh, and Erin Henderson might not play so it will be either Marvin Mitchell or Jasper Brinkley in the nickel. Good luck with that.
5. How much will Viking fans embarrass themselves by cheering for Randy Moss?
Randy Moss is still as popular with Viking fans as he was when he was playing for the Vikings. So we know he’ll get a warm reception when he walks into the Metrodome as a 49er. The question is, how over-the-top will Viking fans get in showing their undying love for Moss? If Moss catches a 60 yard TD from Alex Smith will the fans scream their heads off like it was 1998 all over again? I think there’s a very good chance. That to me would be somewhat embarrassing, but at the same time I understand it. I mean the Vikings do kind of stink. You have to cheer for something. Might as well be a player on the other team. Hopefully Randy will have one of his off-games. He hasn’t been getting many snaps to begin with so there’s actually a good chance he will be a complete non-factor. I’m more worried about what Frank Gore and Vernon Davis are going to do.