Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Vikings

Taking a look deep inside Sunday's battle of NFC rivals between the 49ers and Minnesota Vikings at Monster Park in San Francisco, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch, injury impact, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before the game.

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. Pacific
SITE: Monster Park in San Francisco
RECORDS: 49ers 3-9, 3-7 in NFC, third place in NFC West; Vikings 6-6, 4-5 in NFC, second place in NFC North
TV: FOX, Matt Vasgersian, JC Pearson

SERIES HISTORY: 43rd meeting. San Francisco leads series, 22-19-1, and is 8-4 against Minnesota in the month of December. The 49ers beat the visiting Vikings, 9-3, on Nov. 5 of last season. That marked the first time the teams had played at San Francisco in the regular season since 1997. The Vikings are 7-13-1 all-time in San Francisco.

KEYS TO THE GAME: The focus is rightfully on their top-ranked running game, but the Vikings' resurgence can also be attributed to the maturation of second-year QB Tarvaris Jackson. He is managing the game well, and hitting on just enough big plays to make defense pay for over-playing the run. Stacked fronts or not, Minnesota will continue to batter away with RBs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor with their offensive line able to physically dominate most any opponent. ... 49ers QB Trent Dilfer threw four interceptions last week, but the Vikings' ability to put pressure on him is diminished with DE Erasmus James ailing and DE Ray Edwards suspended for the final four games. Dilfer has to rebound to exploit the Vikings' bottom-ranked pass defense, because RB Frank Gore figures to have a tough go of it against the stout front seven.

FAST FACTS: The Vikings' remaining opponents are a combined 18-30. ... 49ers LB Patrick Willis has recorded 18 tackles in back-to-back games.

BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- Times the 49ers offense has been held to fewer than 200 yards of total offense this season. The 49ers average a league-low 231.7 yards per game. 17 -- Yards safety Darren Sharper needs via interception returns to reach the 1,000-yard mark for his career.

"We've got an opportunity with four to go, to play Minnesota, and hopefully we can bounce back this week. That is the bright side of looking forward for our players as well." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan.
"I believe that the wide receivers blocked probably as well as I have seen. I had an official at the end of the game tell me, 'Coach, I don't think I have ever seen wide receivers block like this since I have been officiating in the National Football League,' which is quite a statement." -- Vikings coach Brad Childress, on the blocks thrown by his receiving corps in a 42-10 victory Sunday over Detroit.

49ERS GAME PLAN: The 49ers will try to carry out a similar plan to the one they used last season when they defeated the Vikings 9-3. The 49ers simply must find a way to get the ball in the hands of RB Frank Gore. When San Francisco is able to get him involved, it stands a much better chance at winning. He had 32 touches in an overtime victory against the Cardinals two weeks ago. Last week, Gore carried just 12 times and caught five passes. Gore appears to be running much stronger after being limited earlier in the season with an ankle sprain. Many of the 49ers' offensive problems stem from their difficulty in picking up blitzes. Offensive line coach George Warhop has to do a better job of preparing his line, as well as the entire blitz pickup team. Embattled offensive coordinator Jim Hostler has tried to do a better job of putting his players in the best positions to make plays. However, it is difficult if the 49ers can't keep the chains moving. The 49ers lead the league in three-and-outs this season. Last week, they ran just 52 offensive plays. The club has to do a better job on third downs to keep those drives alive and enable Hostler to dial up more plays. The 49ers have converted just 27.3 percent of their third-down chances this season. Defensively, the 49ers feel as if they'll be able to handle the Vikings' passing game. Their attention will shift to slowing down RB Adrian Peterson, who leads the league in rushing. S Michael Lewis undoubtedly will be seen at the line of scrimmage repeatedly as an eighth defender in the box.

VIKINGS GAME PLAN: Considering the way the Vikings have been playing, this is a game they most definitely should be able to not only win but control. For a rushing offense and defense that both rank No. 1 in the NFL, this means the Vikings should be able to dominate the 49ers at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. This should be especially true given that the 49ers offense is ranked last in the league, including 27th in rushing and 32nd in passing. The Vikings pass defense remains at the bottom of the NFL as well but it has been getting better of late. San Francisco running back Frank Gore could be in for a long day, but if the 49ers are going to have any success on offense, they probably will need to at least establish they can move the ball on the ground. Last Sunday, Detroit only had seven rushing attempts against the Vikings and scored a total of 10 points. Gore's best hope is to get outside because running up the middle against the Vikings is nearly impossible. Offensively, the Vikings have shown great improvement of late and that should continue against a San Francisco defense that is 23rd in the NFL. The 49ers are equally mediocre against the run and the pass, meaning Vikings running backs Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor could be in for another big game. The two combined for 186 yards on 29 carries and three touchdowns against the Lions.

--- 49ers LB Patrick Willis, a rookie who leads the NFL in tackles, vs. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, a rookie who leads the NFL with 1,197 rushing yards.
--- 49ers RDE Marques Douglas, who is having the best season of his career with 79 tackles, including 12 stops behind the line of scrimmage, vs. Vikings LG Steve Hutchinson, whose attitude and his play have helped the Vikings become the best rushing team in the league.
--- 49ers C Eric Heitmann, who makes all the line calls for a 49ers team that has often looked confused this season, vs. Vikings NT Pat Williams, who leads the line with 62 tackles and is a big reason the Vikings rank No. 1 in the league against the run. The success of the Vikings run defense begins up front with Pat and Kevin Williams and Heitmann will be the latest center to have to spend his afternoon going against Pat while providing occasional help on Kevin. Heitmann's success against Pat Williams will help to determine if Frank Gore is successful in establishing any semblance of a run game for San Francisco. Gore also can catch the ball -- his 38 receptions are second on the team -- so it would not be surprising to see San Francisco try to swing the ball out to him and attempt to take Pat Williams out of the equation.
--- 49ers TE Vernon Davis, whose production has been up and down this season, vs. Vikings SLB Ben Leber, who will try to re-route Davis off the line of scrimmage on pass plays.
--- 49ers LT Adam Snyder, who has struggled in pass protection at times, vs. Vikings RDEs Ray Edwards and Brian Robison, who have combined for 8.5 of the team's 30 sacks this season.
--- Vikings RT Ryan Cook vs. 49ers DT Bryant Young. Cook has gone from suspect to solid this season and has been tested on an almost weekly basis. Another difficult assignment will come this Sunday when he goes against Young, who has 6.5 sacks this season. The 49ers play a 3-4 defense, so Cook will get some help on Young but he also will have to be on alert for linebackers rushing Tarvaris Jackson.
--- 49ers WR Arnaz Battle vs. Vikings CBs Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin. It's uncertain if Winfield will be able to return from a hamstring injury but if he does, look for the 49ers to try to get Battle matched up on second-year cornerback Griffin. Battle, who is battling a sprained ankle, is San Francisco's top receiving threat with 43 catches and also has four touchdowns on the season. Teams have consistently tried to go at Griffin during the course of the season and San Francisco could be the latest.

LB Derek Smith was limited in practice this week but is expected to make the start against the Vikings. Smith ranks fourth on the team with 87 tackles this season. RB Frank Gore appears to be nearly 100 percent after sustaining a right ankle sprain Oct. 21 against the New York Giants. Gore took part in limited practice during the week, but he will he is expected to start Sunday. Gore is the 18th-leading rusher in the league and has raised his average to 4.2 yards a carry. WR Arnaz Battle, the 49ers' leading receiver, returned to limited practice on Thursday after missing a day with a right ankle sprain. He leads the 49ers with 43 catches for 545 yards. CB Shawntae Spencer, who enters in nickel situations, is expected to miss his second straight game with a quad strain. QB Alex Smith was cleared for light throwing this week after resting his shoulder and forearm for two weeks. Smith will continue to be evaluated before a decision is made whether he will require surgery on the shoulder he separated Sept. 30. Smith will not play this week, and his status for the remainder of the season remains in doubt. RG David Baas has a right elbow strain, but he remained in last week's game and is expected to play against the Vikings. CB Donald Strickland has a mild knee sprain. His status for this week's game is uncertain. CB Marcus Hudson will miss at least another game with a knee sprain he sustained Nov. 25 against the Cardinals. NT Aubrayo Franklin returned to action last week after missing two games with a torn calf muscle. He did not start, but he could return to the lineup this week. WR Jason Hill should be available for action this week after missing some time with a quad strain. Hill, a rookie, has not been a factor, as he has just one catch for 6 yards.
VIKINGS: The Vikings have gotten used to playing without Winfield, who has missed four of the past five games and is a question mark for this contest. Rookie Marcus McCauley has done a nice job of filling in for Winfield. McCauley suffered a neck stinger last weekend against the Lions but is expected to be ready to play against the 49ers. Wide receiver Troy Williamson missed the Detroit game because of a concussion and might end up sitting again. Rookie Aundrae Allison was a more than capable replacement, returning a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown and catching two passes for 52 yards.



--- LB Derek Smith was limited in practice Thursday but is expected to make the start Sunday against the Vikings. Smith ranks fourth on the team with 87 tackles this season.
--- RB Frank Gore appears to be nearly 100 percent after sustaining a right ankle sprain Oct. 21 against the New York Giants. Gore is still taking part in limited practice during the week, but he will he is expected to start Sunday against the Vikings' No. 1 rush defense. Gore is the 18th-leading rusher in the league and has raised his average to 4.2 yards a carry.
--- WR Arnaz Battle, the 49ers' leading receiver, returned to limited practice on Thursday after missing a day with a right ankle sprain. Battle has caught four TD passes this season, including scores in back-to-back games. He leads the 49ers with 43 catches for 545 yards.
--- CB Shawntae Spencer, who enters in nickel situations, is expected to miss his second straight game with a quad strain.
--- RB Michael Robinson has seen limited duty since getting a lot of action Nov. 4 when Frank Gore was out of the lineup against the Falcons. For the season, Robinson has just 25 rushes for 120 yards. He leads the 49ers with 22 tackles on special teams.

--- S Mike Doss did not practice Wednesday or Thursday because of a hamstring injury suffered Sunday against Detroit.
--- WR Robert Ferguson returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday because of a personal issue.
--- LB E.J. Henderson missed practice Wednesday and Thursday because of illness.
--- OL Artis Hicks suffered back spasms near the end of Thursday's practice. He had taken part in the entire practice.
--- DT Spencer Johnson missed a portion of Wednesday and Thursday's practice because of a groin injury.
--- RB Adrian Peterson was held out of a portion of Wednesday and Thursday's practice to rest his knee. Peterson played last Sunday against Detroit and is being rested simply for precautionary reasons.
--- LB Dontarrious Thomas took part in only a portion of practice again Thursday as he continues to recover from a groin injury that kept him out last Sunday.
--- S Tank Williams did not practice Wednesday or Thursday because of an MCL injury that kept him out last Sunday.
--- WR Troy Williamson returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis after sitting out last Sunday because of a concussion. He was limited again Thursday.
--- CB Antoine Winfield took part in a portion of practice Wednesday and Thursday and expects to return Sunday after missing four of the past five games because of a hamstring injury.



Quarterback Alex Smith might be out of sight, but he's not completely out of 49ers coach Mike Nolan's mind.

Veteran Trent Dilfer will make his sixth start of the season Sunday when against the Vikings. Smith was cleared to begin light throwing as part of his rehabilitation from shoulder and forearm problems. It does not appear likely Smith will play again this season.

As for the future, Nolan said if Smith can get healthy, he still is seen as the team's quarterback of the future.

"It's really difficult to commit to anything past today when you really don't know what it (the injury situation) is," Nolan said. "If everyone is healthy and everyone is playing well, he's the guy. But that's not the way it is today.

"If everyone's at the top of their game? Shoot, yeah, we drafted him (Smith) to be the guy."

Smith has not been healthy since he sustained a separated throwing shoulder Sept. 30 against the Seattle Seahawks. He tried unsuccessfully to play three games, but was clearly not healthy. The 49ers have a 7-5 record in the 12 games before Smith's injury.

The club is just 1-6 in games this season with Dilfer at quarterback. Neither quarterback has been impressive this season. Dilfer is 33rd in the NFL with a passer rating of 58.4, ranking ahead of only Smith (57.2) among qualifying quarterbacks.

Nolan has been supportive of Dilfer, who has mostly struggled since being pushed into the starting lineup. Those close to Smith are disappointed with how Nolan handled Smith's injury, as well as some of his comments since. Nolan has said that Dilfer had two starts in a row that were better than any performance Smith had during his 30 career starts.

"When I say Trent gives us our best chance to win, it's because right now as a healthy quarterback, without question he gives us our best chance to win," Nolan said. "When Alex was not healthy, he did not. So it's not a knock on anybody."

With Ray Edwards suspended for four games and Erasmus James nursing a knee injury, the Vikings stand to be shorthanded at right defensive end for Sunday's game at San Francisco.

Minnesota took a step to add some depth on Thursday signing second-year player Otis Grigsby off the Carolina practice squad, but it's likely that rookie Brian Robison and Jayme Mitchell will be asked to play significant roles against the 49ers.

The news about Edwards' suspension for violating the NFL's steroid policy came out Wednesday.

Edwards leads the Vikings with five sacks and started the first 11 games. Interestingly, James got his first start of the year last Sunday against Detroit but coach Brad Childress said that was not related to any off-the-field issues with Edwards.

James, though, hasn't practiced this week because of a sore left knee. That's the same knee he had surgically repaired last year after being injured in the second game of the season.

Childress would not divulge any information about James' condition Thursday saying he would discuss the subject Friday.

The Vikings could look to move left end Kenechi Udeze to the right side. Udeze, however, is a much better fit at base end and did not have a sack last season after replacing James.

Robison, meanwhile, has 4.5 sacks to rank second among NFL rookies. A fourth-round pick out of Texas, Robison also has 13 quarterback hurries.

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