Heading into this season, the San Francisco 49ers were viewed as one of the NFC teams on the rise. With a series of high draft picks and young talent on offense, the Niners made some noise late in the season last year and, while most felt they would likely have to wait until 2008 to be a legitimate division title contender, they were a team many believed would be a .500 team that was on the come.
That belief only got stronger when the team started the 2007 campaign 2-0 with wins over division rivals Arizona and St. Louis. But since then, only the Miami Dolphins have been worse. In their last 10 games, San Francisco has gone 1-9 and allowed 31 or more points in half of those games. To complicate that, the 49ers have scored more than 20 points just once all season and have scored 10 or fewer points in five games. In short, the team is a mess and has regressed badly.
When you see such a precipitous dropoff, it is usually the result of poor quarterback play. The 49ers have had it from both of their QBs. Alex Smith was the first overall pick in the 2005 draft and, after a disastrous rookie campaign, showed signs of marked improvement in 2006. But injuries and poor play have clouded his future with the team, as the word "bust" has been thrown around. Before he was injured, he had completed fewer than half of the passes he threw, averaged only 150 yards a game passing and had just two touchdown passes and four interceptions for a woeful passer rating of 57.2. While backup Trent Dilfer has posted better numbers, they're dismal as well – completing 106 of 200 passes for 1,121 yards with seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions for a passer rating of just 58.4. He is also a statue in the pocket that has been sacked 26 times despite playing in just half of the 49ers' games this season. If pressured, he will make critical mistakes and the Vikings will be sure to come after him with blitz packages so he can't get comfortable in the pocket. With his veteran savvy, he can make plays if given time, but if pressured, he will make the big mistakes that kill a team.
The running game was the strength of the 49ers last year as Frank Gore burst on the scene as one of the top running backs in the NFC. Like so many of his teammates, he has been bothered with injuries this season and, while he still has 713 yards on 171 carries, those totals through 12 games reflect about half the attempts and yardage he gained in 2006. Despite being slowed by a series of injuries, Gore remains the only running threat for the 49ers. His 171 carries is almost seven times more than the next in line – second-year pro Michael Robinson with 25 rushing attempts. While Gore is still dinged up, the odds of anyone else getting touches is minimal, so the Vikings defense knows who it has to stop to neutralize the San Francisco running game.
The receiver corps has been more like a receiver corpse since Terrell Owens took his traveling sideshow on the road to Philadelphia. The team has addressed the situation, but, much like the Vikings in the post-Randy Moss era, their attempts have been spotty at best. The leading receiver is fifth-year man Arnaz Battle, who leads the team in receptions (43), yards (545) and touchdowns (4). But he is 50-50 to play Sunday. That puts a lot more pressure on the two primary imports – Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie. Both had decent pedigrees in a West Coast system coming to San Francisco – Jackson being a long-time stud for Seattle and Lelie being a big-play threat in Denver. But the two have combined to catch just 37 passes for 430 yards and one touchdown – less than Battle, viewed as a No. 3 receiver at best for most teams, by himself. If Battle can't go, eight-year veteran Bryan Gilmore would likely be the third-receiver option.
For what seems like an every-week proposition, the Vikings defense will face another of the game's top tight ends in Vernon Davis. Injuries and offensive ineffectiveness have limited Davis' production, but he is a difference-maker with extremely rare speed for a man his size. He has a chance to rival Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow among the top deep threats among tight ends. Injuries have been an issue, but if the 49ers are going to have any success through the air, Davis will have to be an integral part of that plan.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the 49ers' offensive struggles has been the front line. Injuries have ravaged the line – taking away starting left tackle Jonas Jennings and right guard Justin Smiley. As a result, the line has become a patchwork that hasn't been effective. Even in his 14th year, left guard Larry Allen is among the better guards in the game today. Center Eric Heitmann is solid at center, but the dropoff starts there. Right tackle Joe Staley is a rookie who is starting more because fifth-year man Kwame Harris hasn't got the job done than Staley being so good the coaching staff had no choice. Left tackle Adam Snyder is a guard by trade who has been forced to left tackle because of Jennings being gone. Right guard David Bass is an ideal backup at guard and center that can step in if needed, but not depended on to be a starter. The Vikings will look to collapse this group and there's no reason to believe that they can stand up to the Vikings' front four – even with a depleted spot at right end.
The offense has been hideous for the Niners all season, but the defense hasn't done the team many favors either. In half of their last 10 games, they have been lit up for 31 or more points and most of those problems have come up front. One of the few teams to run a 3-4 defense, the 49ers haven't done it very well. The top guy is Bryant Young, a 14-year veteran who is clearly at the end of the line for his career. While he leads the team with 6.5 sacks, he can't carry a heavy workload and needs to be spelled too often for what he's being paid. At nose tackle, fifth-year man Aubrayo Franklin is in his fifth season, but his first as a starter. A backup in Baltimore, he was one of the highly touted unused free agents on the market last April. While he looked strong early, he has faded of late and the Niners have put backup Isaac Sopoaga in to replace Franklin more times than they'd like. On the right side, seventh-year man Marques Douglas is adequate at best and only starting because the 49ers don't have any better options. Rookie Ray McDonald might be the answer in the future, but for now, he's a spot replacement, and third-year pro Ronald Fields is used to split time with Young and hasn't had a chance to shine on his own.
While Vikings fans already know who the offensive rookie of the year is going to be, 49ers fans know who the defensive R.O.Y. is – inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Taken with 11th pick overall, Willis is on pace to set the rookie record for tackles. He is a sideline-to-sideline chase-down player who is on the fast track to be one of the top linebackers in the league. He teams with 11th-year pro Derek Smith on the inside. Smith has been battling injuries for most of the last month and is nowhere close to 100 percent. While playing through injuries, backup Jeff Ulbrich is seeing more playing time as the season progresses. On the outside, the top linebacker – second-year man Manny Lawson – has been lost to injury. As a result, the 49ers have received pedestrian work from Tully Banta-Cain, a 2007 free-agent signee that hasn't lived up to his contract and second-year pro Parys Haralson, who is very inconsistent and takes himself out of too many plays. Depth is thin here and this is an area the Vikings can attack by using play-fakes to the running backs and burning the over-aggressiveness of a 49er defense that routinely bites on play action.
One of the biggest free-agent moves of the offseason was the signing of cornerback Nate Clements. Teamed with 12-year veteran Walt Harris, they are one of the more formidable tandems in the league. But, without a strong pass rush, teams have been able to afford their quarterbacks time to beat them. At safety, Michael Lewis and Mark Roman are adequate, but not star quality, big-play safeties. With that pair of recent free-agent signings, the Niners haven't received a whole lot of bang for their buck. But, with little in the way of backup help, they're all the 49ers have to go with.
On paper, this game looks like a classic story of two teams going in very different directions. The Vikings have won three straight and have resurrected their season. The Niners have lost nine of their last 10 games and six of those losses have been 17 or points or more. They have all the appearances of a beat-up team looking to close the string on the season. If there was a game on the 2007 schedule that screams of a lopsided, time-control domination, it is this matchup. This will be the watershed moment of the Vikings' season. They haven't been more than a touchdown favorite on the road in years. They are Sunday. Now all they have to do is prove why they're such a favorite. In December, good teams beat down the teams they should beat down. By definition, the 49ers qualify as one of those teams.
Preview: 49ers Already Beat Down
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