It has been a while since the San Francisco 49ers were relevant in the hierarchy of the NFC, but as they come to the Metrodome for the Vikings' 2009 regular-season home opener, the 49ers are 2-0 with a pair of wins in their own division. With head coach Mike Singletary beginning his first full season as the head coach, his team has responded, playing with a grind-it-out offense and an opportunistic defense that has consistently made big plays to kill drives.
To look at the Niners, they don't have a lot of flash, but they get the job done. Nowhere is that more true than at quarterback, where Shaun Hill, a former Vikings castoff, has become the starting quarterback. Hill has been extremely effective in part-time duty as a starting quarterback. Since the start of the 2007 season, the 49ers have a record of 9-3 when Hill has started and 5-17 when he hasn't. He isn't the kind of quarterback that can carry a team on his shoulders, but he manages games very well and keeps mistakes to a minimum. Operating out of a short passing game – the Niners only have two pass plays of more than 12 yards in their first two games – he has completed 65 percent of his passes and has not thrown an interception. If there is a concern among 49ers fans, it is that he has been sacked eight times and tends to hold on to the ball and wait for receivers to get open rather than take chances and try to deliver the ball into tight areas. If the Vikings can rattle him, he can crumble, but it won't be easy to get him to throw interceptions.
With the passing game lacking explosion, the running game has been the main thrust of the San Francisco offense, which is almost exclusively the domain of fifth-year running back Frank Gore. Gore electrified the Niners offense last week against Seattle, rushing for 207 yards, including touchdown runs of 80 and 78 yards. He is clearly the workhorse of the offense. He has 38 carries in two games for 237 yards, while the rest of the team has just 16 rushes for 40 yards. He not only runs the ball, but is tied for the team lead in receptions with eight. The Niners like rookie Glen Coffee, but have yet to see the hard-nosed runner from Alabama take flight as a pro. In his first two games, he has gained just 10 yards on 10 carries. The fullback position all but disappeared when Mike Martz was running the offense, but that has changed with Singletary at the helm. Eight-year veteran Moran Norris was brought in as a free agent from Detroit and, while his touches will be minimal (in two games, he has just three carries and three receptions), his role as a lead blocker for Gore and a blitz pick-up specialist to protect Hill will be vital.
The receiver corps for the Niners was supposed to get a much-needed boost when they drafted Michael Crabtree with the 10th pick in April's draft. However, Crabtree and his agent have asked for an absurd amount of money – more than the picks in front of him received – and the 49ers have balked. He remains the only unsigned rookie, has left the Bay Area and even changed his phone numbers so his teammates can't call or text him. This deadlock doesn't appear to be breaking any time soon and, even if it does, he won't be in uniform against the Vikings. Instead, the 49ers will go with ageless veteran Isaac Bruce, who is tied for the team lead in receptions (eight) and leads the team in receiving yards (109). He is joined by second-year man Josh Morgan, who made a lot of progress during his rookie season and offers some deep-play ability. Depth is provided by veteran Arnaz Battle and free-agent signee Brandon Jones. Jones, who was effective as a slot receiver with the Titans, is expected to be the third wide receiver for the 49ers as well.
Tight end is an interesting position. Last year, former first-round lottery pick Vernon Davis was sent to the locker room during the game because of a feud with Singletary. This year, he was named one of the team's captains. While he has never lived up to his promise, he is a dangerous threat with good deep speed that could test the Vikings down the seam.
The problem with taking Crabtree with the 10th pick is that the 49ers ignored a pressing need at offensive tackle. Last year, the 49ers allowed a league-worst 55 sacks and have already allowed eight sacks in two games. The biggest free-agent splash of the offseason was to sign former Steelers tackle Marvel Smith, but he abruptly retired Aug. 28, leaving the same line that struggled so badly last year. The line is relatively non-descript with Joe Staley and Adam Snyder at the tackles, David Baas and Chilo Rachal at guard and Eric Heitmann at center. Staley was drafted as a right tackle, but has played left tackle the last two seasons, and both Baas and Rachal are young and still learning the game. This is a group that can be overpowered by the Vikings veteran, athletic defensive line and could be one of the more interesting matchups of the game.
The 49ers defense has been impressive. Operating out of the 3-4 set, the group is led by defensive end Justin Smith, for whom the 49ers out-bid the Vikings prior to Minnesota swinging the Jared Allen trade. Smith led the linemen in tackles and sacks last year and will create a lot of problems for Bryant McKinnie. On the other side, the 49ers use a rotation of Isaac Sopoaga and Kentwan Balmer. Sopoaga moved from the inside to the outside this year and Balmer has the ideal size, strength and speed to be a 3-4 rush end. In the middle, they have six-year veteran Aubrayo Franklin. While he doesn't provide much in the way of a pass rush, he is an excellent run-stuffer and will be a challenge for second-year center John Sullivan all day. Depth is thin beyond the starting group, so the Vikings will have a chance to wear them down if they can establish the run early.
For any 3-4 defense to work, a strong group of linebackers is required and few teams have more talent than San Francisco. In the middle are Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis. Willis, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007, is very active and always around the ball, while Spikes is a veteran leader who makes a lot of plays and is rarely caught out of position. On the outside, Parys Haralson led the team in sacks (eight) last year and was rewarded with a long-term contract. He is joined by Manny Lawson, a first-round pick in 2006 who has yet to live up to expectations. Depth is once again thin at this position, but there is some talent, led by inside linebacker Jeff Ulbrich and Ahmad Brooks on the outside. The starting unit here is very solid and extremely active and it will be their job not only to contain Adrian Peterson, but also to put blitz pressure on Brett Favre by mixing up blitzes and shooting gaps in protection.
The secondary is very solid and deep. Former Buffalo Bill Nate Clements is among the better cornerbacks in the league, but the team suffered a major blow when Walt Harris was lost for the season after being placed on injured reserve during the May minicamp. His job is being split between fifth-year man Shawntae Spencer and free-agent signee Dre Bly. The 49ers had plenty of problems at safety a year ago, as neither starter recorded an interception. As a result, former starter Mark Roman has been replaced by third-year pro Dashon Goldson at free safety, joining Michael Lewis at strong safety. There is some depth with Roman and Reggie Smith, who has spent time both at safety and cornerback during minicamps and the preseason.
The 49ers come to the Metrodome on a roll, having recorded a pair of divisional wins. It will be up to the Vikings to control the game in the trenches, where they would appear to have a decided advantage. However, if they once again get off to a slow start, the Niners may not be the type of team that will surrender the lead in the second half. This is the toughest test the Vikings have had to date and they will have to put together solid games on both sides of the ball if they expect to improve to 3-0 on the season.
Preview: Where are the 49ers weakest?
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