The Vikings have faced a pair of sub-par teams in their first two games of the 2012 season – winning one in overtime and losing the other in the final seconds. However, when they meet the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, they may have to play as close to a perfect game in all three aspects of the game – offense, defense and special teams – if they're looking to come away with a win.
It can be argued that the 49ers are the most complete team in the NFL. Some teams run the ball on offense, while others are predominantly passing teams. More times than not, they are one or the other because of deficiencies. San Francisco's first two opponents – Green Bay and Detroit – are pass-happy offenses in no small part because they don't have a strong running game. San Francisco was in that category for the last several years themselves, but, with sound drafting and free agent acquisitions, the 49ers have one of the most diversely talented teams on both sides of the ball.
It's hard to imagine how high expectations would be in the Bay Area had the 49ers won the Peyton Manning sweepstakes, but they have a talented game manager in Alex Smith, who minimizes mistakes and finally has the weapons around him to open up the offense and take shots deep down the field. Through two games, Smith has completed more than 70 percent of his passes (40 of 57) with four TD passes, no interceptions and a passer rating of 115.9. He won't be mistaken for Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but he does his job well and makes the passes requested of him.
One of the reasons Smith has been so successful the last two seasons is that defenses aren't able to force San Francisco into passing situations. Veteran running back Frank Gore had one of the most prolific seasons of his career in 2011 and is off to a strong start this year (33 rushes for 201 yards and two touchdowns). He is a between-the-tackles type banger who is adept at picking holes and hitting them hard to control the clock and move the chains. It was hoped that former Giant Brandon Jacobs would make this element of the Niners' power running game even more potent, but he has been sidelined with a knee injury. The other element to the San Francisco running game is the emergence of Kendall Hunter, a speedy receiver out of the backfield who can stretch the field and turn the corner – giving the 49ers a thunder-and-lightning backfield tandem that can do damage in multiple ways.
Gore's huge 2011 season was due in large part to the general lack of elite receiving talent the 49ers had last year. The team had Michael Crabtree, who emerged late in the season as a deep threat, and tight end Vernon Davis, who presented huge matchup problems. But, after them, the talent drop-off was pronounced. The organization realized this and was aggressive in the offseason to change that weakness. They signed Mario Manningham and Randy Moss in free agency and used their first-round draft pick on A.J. Jenkins, turning an area of weakness into a strength. The talent pool is so deep that Jenkins has been inactive the first two weeks and Moss has caught just five passes as the No. 3 receiver.
The unsung strength of the team has been its offensive line. Headed up by left tackle Joe Staley, with the exception of 11th-year center Jonathan Goodwin, the 49ers have a young O-line that features three third-year players that, along with Staley, could be together for years to come. The team has made a huge investment in its O-line – using first-round picks on Staley, guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis – and that investment has paid off handsomely. They have helped the team be a run-first offense that plays smashmouth football, but not it is by choice, not necessity. If the team wants to air the ball out 40 times a game, it has the explosiveness to do so, but, head coach Jim Harbaugh prefers a style that wears down defenses one run at a time.
While the 49ers offense wasn't high-octane last year, the primary reason they finished 13-3 was due to a defense that rivals Baltimore in terms of talent at all three levels. They had the league's most potent run defense – not allowing a rushing touchdown until mid-December last year. The team runs a 3-4 defense that has a veteran presence up front with defensive ends Justin Smith (12th year) and Ray McDonald (6th year) and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (9th year). All three are adept at run stuffing and can push the line backward to provide lanes for the strongest unit on the team – their all-world linebackers.
Patrick Willis is entering his sixth season and has established himself as one of the most dominant playmaking linebackers in the NFL. A throwback to players like Mike Singletary, he delivers big hits consistently and gets players to keep an eye on where he is whenever they enter his zone. He is flanked on the inside by NaVarro Bowman, who has incredible speed and led the team in tackles last year. He has drawn comparisons to Willis because they both play with the same dominant, physical style. On the outside, Ahmad Brooks was re-signed to a long-term contract in the offseason after recording seven sacks and setting a personal best with 50 tackles, but the player who made the biggest impact on the passing game was rookie Aldon Smith. His 14 sacks last year were the second most by a rookie in NFL history and he already has two sacks this year. With all the talent the Niners have in their front seven, Smith's pass-rush ability will be what the Vikings have had to game plan against the most to keep him from tilting the field in the 49ers' favor.
On most teams, the secondary the 49ers have would be the strongest unit on the defense. But in San Francisco it might be the weakest – not because of pedestrian talent but because the rest of the defense is so impressive. The team has two of the best safeties in the league in Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson and former blue-chip first-round draft pick Donte Whitner. Both are playmakers who can intercept passes as well as provide strong run support. At the corners, Carlos Rogers proved to be one of the biggest free agent signings last year and is a borderline shut-down corner. If there is a question, it's at the other corner, where Terrell Brown got burned early but improved as the season went on and is poised to take his place among the talented teammates that surround him.
There are teams that have difference-making individual players on them throughout the league, but the 49ers are the type of team that the Patriots were at the beginning of the last decade – a ton of talented players on both sides of the ball that create a situation where the sum is greater than the individual parts. If the Vikings are to beat San Francisco, they will have to play at a high level in every phase of the game. As the Packers and Lions learned the hard way in the first two weeks, this San Francisco team won't satisfied to just get into January games. They want to play in February and, barring injuries, look like they have the horses to achieve that lofty goal.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Gold rush of players on 49ers
Viking Update Top Stories
Preview: Vikings facing aggressive EaglesThe Minnesota Vikings’ continued success on Sunday will be predicated on their ability to handle and exploit the aggressiveness of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 7:26 PM
Key matchup: Former teammates face offOnly time will tell who got the better of the Sam Bradford trade to the Minnesota Vikings, but he and Carson Wentz will face each other Sunday after the trade that surprised them…
Viking UpdateYesterday at 7:06 AM
Vikings podcast: Spielman, Bradford and moreThe Minnesota Vikings are showing the fruits of some solid roster building and coaching. Their record, their stats and their depth prove it, as a talk with Rick Spielman showed.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 6:17 AM
Vikings rush offense needs to improveThe Minnesota Vikings are the lone unbeaten team in the NFL, yet they are failing at one of the typical telltale signs of a winning team - being able to control the clock with a…
Viking UpdateFriday at 8:23 PM