The strength of the San Francisco 49ers used to be their defense. Last year, they were ranked fifth overall, seventh against the rush and fifth against the pass. Those days could be over.
The 49ers lost linebackers Chris Borland and Patrick Willis to retirement and Aldon Smith to his own misdeeds, as he was arrested for suspicion of DUI once again. The heart of a strong defense in 2014 has undergone not just a minor surgery but a nearly full transplant.
Now the linebacker corps is made up of Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Michael Wilhoite and Corey Lemonier. There are still some good players there with Brooks and Bowman, but if the Vikings really want to test just how far Matt Kalil has progressed from a disappointing 2014 season, Adrian Peterson should be run to the left toward Whilhoite and Lemonier to test them early.
Putting pressure on the edges with an Adrian Peterson-led running game would also test two cornerbacks with little to no experience in the San Francisco system.
The 49ers lost their starting two cornerbacks, Chris Culliver to the Redskins on a four-year, $32 million deal, and Perrish Cox to the Titans on a three-year, $15 million contract in free agency. They were one of the better and underrated cornerback tandems in the NFL last year, proficient in both coverage and run support. Now it’s either second-year pro Kenneth Acker or first-year 49er Keith Reaser, neither of whom has played an NFL game, at right cornerback, and Tramaine Brock, who started two games last year and a combined seven tackles in the three games he played, at left cornerback.
In three career games against the 49ers, Peterson has only a combined 174 yards, a 3.0-yard average and no touchdowns. But this 49ers defense isn’t the one Peterson has faced in the past.
Far from it with all the new faces in place. Getting Peterson rolling early, especially on the edges, means more commitment from the 49ers’ safeties and cornerbacks, as well as more opportunities for play-action passes.
In other words, the opportunities and options for Teddy Bridgewater should be plentiful and prevalent. A play-action bite from a linebacker could leave Kyle Rudolph or MyCole Pruitt open in the middle, a false step from a cornerback could give Mike Wallace the space he can so readily exploit, and a safety too eager to support the run could leave Jarius Wright or Charles Johnson room to roam.
There is plenty the 49ers are trying to figure out about their defense early this season with new players in position by force. And there is plenty the Vikings want to see out of their offense with new players in position by choice.