Nearly complete 49ers provide stiff test

The Vikings might be facing an ideal opponent in their third preseason game. The 49ers are talented, balanced and deep, and they are the defending conference champions.

Of all the opponents the Vikings could have played in the third game of the preseason, perhaps none would be as important to gauging where the Vikings are in this point of their development as the San Francisco 49ers in a nationally televised Sunday night game.

As most fans know, the preseason can be a frustrating exercise for players and fans alike. The first and last games typically don't include frontline starters and the second game ordinarily sees starters play a little more than one quarter. However, the third game of the preseason is ordinarily when you get the best glimpse of the strengths and weaknesses of a team because the starters tend to play the entire first half and a series or two into the second half to get a final tune-up before the start of the regular season. Given that San Francisco is the defending NFC champion, the test the Vikings will face Sunday will be as stiff as any team in the conference could provide.

There may be a little lingering animosity for the 49ers. If not for their loss to the Vikings last season, Minnesota wouldn't have made the playoffs. In the 24-13 win by the Vikings, the team manhandled the physical 49ers 24-13 and pressured QB Alex Smith throughout the game. Much has changed with the 49ers since that Week 3 game last season, particularly at quarterback.

When Smith got banged up at midseason, he was replaced in the lineup by Colin Kaepernick. Less than a year later, Smith is no longer in San Francisco and Kaepernick is being counted on to be one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the league. A versatile passer and rusher, Kaepernick is the blueprint of what the new-look NFL quarterbacks are expected to do. An accurate passer with good deep passing ability as well as an athletic runner who scored five rushing touchdowns in the final month of the season, he is being hailed as the next big thing among NFL quarterbacks. He will provide a stiff challenge for the Vikings defense, which will have to be on its toes to prepare for what Kaepernick can do with his arms and his legs.

While Kaepernick is grabbing most of the preseason headlines, what makes the 49ers one of the favorites to return to the Super Bowl in February is that the team has its share of old-school strengths – effectively running the football and playing a smothering defense. Although he's on the wrong side of 30, running back Frank Gore continues to be a dominant force on the ground. He put together one of his best seasons last year (1,214 yards rushing, 28 receptions and nine touchdowns) and will be leaned on heavily to control the tempo of the game offensively.

It can be argued that the 49ers have the most complete defense in the NFL, with talent from front to back – from Ray McDonald, Glenn Dorsey and Justin Smith up front, Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks at the linebacker spots, and Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Donte Whitner in the secondary. A case can be made that all of them are deserving of Pro Bowl consideration. After losing to the Vikings, the Niners had seven games in which they allowed 13 or fewer points, including five games in which they allowed seven or fewer.

The 49ers aren't without weaknesses. They are without their three top wide receivers from last year. Michael Crabtree suffered an Achilles tear during minicamp and is likely out until November at the earliest. Mario Manningham has been sidelined for most of the summer and the team opted not to re-sign former Viking Randy Moss. Although they signed Anquan Boldin, finding players to step up is more than a passing concern – so much so that the team traded 2012 first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins to Kansas City to acquire Jon Baldwin. Without versatile Delanie Walker, depth at tight end is also a concern.

As the Vikings give their starters the first extended action of the 2013 season, they will be pitted against a 49ers team that is motivated to return to the Super Bowl and avenge a loss to the Vikings last year. While most preseason games have little in the way of the drama the NFL provides on a weekly basis during the regular season, Sunday's game will have much more of a "big game feel" than most and, if the Vikings want to see where they measure against an elite team, they could face few (if any) opponents tougher than the 49ers.

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.

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