The San Francisco 49ers were supposed to have the reeling defense with all the personnel losses. Turns out, they were better than the Minnesota Vikings. Much better.
The Vikings lost contain on Carlos Hyde. They missed tackle after tackle up the middle. As discombobulated as the Vikings offense looked in the first half with a sparse sprinkling of Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater misfires, the defense was every bit as culpable.
The 49ers averaged almost 7 yards a rush in the first half and it wasn’t all Colin Kaepernick’s legs. The rangy quarterback averaged 7.8 yards per carry in the first half. Worse for the Vikings: Hyde ran 12 times and average 6.9 yards on a more consistent and damaging effort.
He exposed the middle of the Minnesota’s defensive line with intermediate runs, getting the Vikings running sideways – or just playing sideways – with stretch zone runs, then finding his cutback lanes. The holes were there … far too often.
This was the Vikings defense that finished 25th against the run last year, but said all training camp long how they were going to play “small ball,” which was a reference to every defender taking care of the small details. Instead, they just looked small as they were pushed around by the 49ers offensive line.
Everson Griffen said the Vikings were “tired.” They had only themselves to blame, as the 49ers ran 34 plays in the first half.
“We’ve got to give it up to the 49ers. They came out and played a fast, physical game. We were tired out there,” Griffen said. “We have to go back to the drawing board and the classroom and make the corrections that we need to get the team back on the upside.”
The corrections are many on both sides of the ball, and some of it may come with personnel.
There isn’t much the Vikings can make in the way of changes in offensive personnel. The offensive line is thin already and, despite Bridgewater’s shaky start, he is the quarterback of the present and future, even if he didn’t play like it Monday night.
On defense, however, Zimmer already made a change entering the game. Andrew Sendejo started in place of Robert Blanton, which is how the Vikings closed out the 2014 season but not how they presented it in the preseason. Neither Sendejo nor Blanton, who ended up replacing Sendejo in the second half, earned their stripes as a starter. But the other options aren’t all that appealing either.
But the blame for the 49ers racking up 395 yards of offense, with 230 of that coming on the ground, was hardly just laid at the feet of the safeties. The entire defense has to own it, eat it and correct it.
The defensive line was pushed around on numerous occasions, and between them, the linebackers and even the defensive backs, contain and leverage on the outside seemed to be consistently lost battles. At times, two defenders were taken out of the play with one blocker, a sign that gap control was out of sync and lane integrity lost.
“We didn’t see that coming. Obviously we prepared. We thought we were prepared for this game. We had been physical in camp. There is always more that you can do,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “We came in and we got beat up a little bit. From a defensive front seven point of view, it obviously wasn’t good enough. Not one that we want to have on tape.”
Had the Vikings offense played better, it might have been a closer game, but the 49ers largely did what they wanted on offense while the Vikings grasped for answers. Few, if any, were found.
“I was very surprised. We have been working so hard in the preseason with an extra game in the preseason and everything,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We have been trying to be physical. We knew that this game would be really physical by watching the tape on these guys. They came out and punched us in the mouth and we didn’t punch back.”
The starting front four was the same as last year, even if the rotation appeared to be more prevalent. The starting linebackers saw only the insertion of Gerald Hodges in place of free-agent defection Jasper Brinkley, and the depth as supposed to be better with the drafting of Eric Kendricks. None of that seemed to matter.
The secondary was supposed to benefit from the acquisition of Terence Newman, but Kaepernick was mostly effective throwing when required. But with a running game that averaged 5.9 yards a carry for the game, San Francisco’s treat was that it didn’t have to pass much.
The 49ers were the team coming into Monday night with incessant questions on defense. Justin Smith, Chris Borland and Patrick Willis all retired from a defense that finished fifth in the NFL last year. Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith were let go. Yet the Vikings couldn’t get a running game going against NaVorro Bowman and a revamped front seven. Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox moved on in free agency, yet Bridgewater struggled in the passing game.
Still, the Vikings were the defense that was humbled and embarrassed. Both were descriptors that – thankfully – were used by defenders following the loss. Question is: Will they do what’s need to reverse course and stand stout? So far, they are 0-1 in wins and losses and 0-1 in being “out-physicalled” and they know it.