Preview: Storylines plentiful with 49ers

With the national spotlight on Brett Favre, the Vikings and 49ers, there is also the subplot of what happened the last time these two teams met. Greg Lewis became a hero with one big catch. But, the reality is the 49ers are an improving team with a division title in their sights.

Most people, including players and coaches, are willing to concede that preseason games are essentially meaningless. It doesn't matter if a team goes 4-0 in the preseason or 0-4. All records are wiped away when the regular season begins. But this week's matchup with the San Francisco 49ers has several more storylines than your standard preseason game might have. There's some recent history that adds more significance to this game that your standard second preseason tilt.

For starters, the game will be nationally televised on NBC's Sunday Night Football. Even for "meaningless" games, playing under the glare of the spotlight knowing the rest of the league is likely watching gets some players excited. Second is the nature of the second preseason game. The first-team players are going to see a quarter or more of action and are aware that, if they're going to do something positive, it will have to come quickly – making the first-unit portion of the game almost like a two-minute drill. Third is the return of Brett Favre to the national TV spotlight. You can be assured that will dominate the coverage and be the focal point of much of the pregame, in-game and postgame commentary. If the Niners needed to have a chip on their shoulders, being viewed as the latest tomato can put in front of Mike Tyson back in the day is enough to give them a Buster Douglas feeling.

But perhaps the biggest factor that will give this game more meaning than most is the recent history between the teams. Mike Singletary was in his first full season as head coach. The 49ers were putting their stamp on the division. They were 2-0 with wins over division rivals Arizona (on the road) and Seattle. After the Vikings, they had the hapless Rams coming to town. A victory over the Vikings had all the potential of making the 49ers 4-0 overall, 3-0 in their division and 4-0 vs. the NFC. They would have been viewed as one of the powers of the NFC and, for 59 minutes of their game at the Metrodome Sept. 27, all the pieces were in place. Then Favre led the Vikings on an improbable game-winning scoring drive that gave the Vikings a 27-24 win and derailed the 49ers' train. They would lose four of their next five games and, despite recovering late to win four of their final six games, they finished 8-8 and all the momentum they had built early lay in the rubble of that loss.

With the Niners the odds-on favorite to win the NFC West title this season, they are looking to make a statement and the Vikings are just the team to for Singletary to get his young players amped up to show the country that San Francisco is back in a big way.

After years of being viewed as an enormous bust, Alex Smith finally showed he could be an effective quarterback last year. After sitting the first five-plus games, the Niners were 6-4 in games he started. He had at least one touchdown in 10 of the 11 games he played, two or more in six of them and one or no interceptions in eight of those. He has become a game manager. He will never be mentioned among the top QBs in the league, but after years of shoulder problems, he is a positive work in progress for the first time heading into a season in his career. San Francisco has not just one former first overall draft pick at QB, but two with former Texan David Carr vying for the backup spot. Since Houston gave up on Carr, he has bounced around the league, spending the last two backing up Eli Manning in New York. He hasn't started a game since the second opener in 2007, so nothing is assured for him. The competition may be for the third QB spot. Nate Davis was the No. 3 QB last year as a rookie and has a rocket arm, which should give him an advantage over undrafted rookie Jarrett Brown.

The running game for the 49ers is expected to be the focus of the offense (with Singletary in charge would you expect anything less?), but there are some significant changes coming. There is no questioning that Frank Gore is the main man. Adept at power running, blocking and receiving, Gore is a multi-purpose threat. With the great backs they've had in San Francisco over the years, Gore was the first player in team history to run for a fourth straight 1,000-yard season. Despite playing with two surgically-repaired knees, Gore is a go-to running back in this system that can be expected to carry 20 times. He was injured against the Vikings last year and was replaced by Glen Coffee, a third-round rookie last year who abruptly retired from football a little more than a week ago. As a result, the Niners scrambled to sign veteran Brian Westbrook. A star with the Eagles who burned the Vikings in their playoff loss to Philadelphia following the 2008 season, Westbrook is a huge injury concern, but, if used as a secondary option and third-down player, he could be a playmaker in this offense. Westbrook is currently vying with powerful sixth-round rookie Anthony Dixon for the primary backup spot. The third-down role is likely going to end up with versatile Michael Robinson, a fifth-year player who is a poor man's Darren Sproles. The Niners have one of the best fullbacks in the league in Moran Norris, where first-year players Brit Miller and Jehuu Caulcrick may be competing for a roster spot that doesn't exist.

There are some question marks at wide receiver, but none of them this year involve Michael Crabtree. His rookie season was marred by a long contract holdout that bled into the regular season, but the big target is back and ready to live up to his high draft status. Reliable chain-mover Josh Morgan is quietly developing into a solid No. 2 receiver. He not only is a big, physical receiver who fights for additional yardage, he's the best blocker among the receivers as well, which will likely win him the starting spot. Former Dolphin first-rounder Ted Ginn Jr. is looking for a career resurgence with the Niners. He isn't a polished receiver, but his pure speed will burn defenses that are forced to pay too much attention to Crabtree and Vernon Davis. His value as a return man makes him a dangerous threat as well. He will be a player to watch Sunday night, since he will likely see much more action than either Crabtree of Morgan. Depth is a big question mark. The team released fifth-year man Brandon Jones earlier this week and rookie Kyle Williams could be out several weeks with a turf toe injury. As result, the second half will likely feature youngsters like fourth-year man Jason Hill, second-year man Dominique Zeigler and undrafted rookie Bakari Grant to try to make an impression in the second half.

After years of flashing ability, Vernon Davis finally broke through with the Pro Bowl season so many expected of him earlier in his career. He became a go-to threat, especially in the red zone, and tied an NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end in a season with 13. Backup Delanie Walker is more than just a solid blocker. He is adept at using his size and strength to create mismatches and creates a Visanthe Shiancoe-like threat. Also in the mix are rookie Nate Byham, who will likely make the roster as a blocking specialist, and veteran Tony Curtis, who is hoping to find a roster spot.

All championship teams need to be solid up front and the Niners have done a solid job of trying to build up front. The team has former first rounders Joe Staley and Anthony Davis at tackle and Mike Iupati at guard. It's tough to start two rookies on the O-line, but the Niners used their two first-round picks to lock down Davis and Iupati to immediately bolster the line. Sixth-year pro Adam Snyder is solid at right guard and there is quality depth at both the guard and tackle positions. OG Chilo Rachal is a former starter and OT Barry Sims filled in well for Staley for seven games last year when Staley was sidelined with a knee injury. The big question is at center. Starter Eric Heitman is expected to miss six to eight weeks with a leg injury and backup David Baas has missed time with a concussion. It will likely open the door for Tony Wragge or Cody Wallace to try to win a backup swingman spot. When fully healthy, this is one of the deeper O-lines in the league, but with young players and new players, they need reps together to get cohesiveness and that is going to take some time.

Defensively, the Niners quietly dominated late in the season. In their last five wins of the 2009 season, they allowed less than 10 point in all of them. However, as they start the 2010 season, there are questions and holes to be filled. The Niners had four solid defensive ends heading into camp – seventh-year pro Isaac Sopoaga, former Bengal and megabuck 2009 free-agent signing Justin Smith and fourth-year swingman Ray McDonald. Kentwan Balmer figured to fit into that mix, but he became disgruntled with his role and was traded earlier this month to Seattle. As a result, there is competition between nine-year veteran Demetric Evans and youngsters Derek Walker and Will Tukuafu for what might only be one roster spot. They will on display in the second half and their NFL futures may well depend on how they perform Sunday night under pressure. The biggest issue is in the middle. The team franchised Aubrayo Franklin and he has yet to sign his tender. While he has held out, youngsters Ricky Jean-Francois and Khalif Mitchell have shared the nose tackle workload. While the experience they're gaining is valuable, for the Niners' 3-4 defense to work, they need Franklin back. They franchised him for a reason – he's a critical cog in their defense.

To make a 3-4 defense effective, teams need strong linebacker play and, if anyone can get the most out of the linebackers, it's a Hall of Famer like Singletary. The Niners have three top-notch linebackers in Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes in the middle and Manny Lawson on the outside. Nobody had more tackles than Willis (152) last year and he caused a half-dozen turnovers with forced fumbles and interceptions. He is a playmaker on the highest order. Spikes is showing the signs of age in his 13th season, but his limited responsibilities in the 3-4 are tailor-made for a veteran with reduced speed. Lawson led the team in sacks last year with 6½ and holds the edge well in both the pass and run game. Fourth starter Parys Harralson is solid, but not nearly as dominant as his fellow LBs. He was expected to be challenged by veterans Ahmad Brooks and Travis LaBoy, but Brooks has missed significant time with a lacerated kidney and is likely out the remainder of the preseason And LaBoy was sidelined following a concussion. Depth is thin on the outside due to the injuries, so expect to see more of second-year man Diyral Briggs and rookie Bruce Davis on the outside. Veteran Matt Wilhelm and third-round rookie NaVorro Bowman are expected to win the backup spots inside.

The secondary is improving, but yet to make the big jump to the elite units in the league. Nate Clements was a big free agent signing two years ago and, while he has played well, hasn't been a big difference-maker. The emergence in the secondary last year came from veteran Shawnte Spencer, who had his best season as a pro last year. Former Viking Karl Paymah is in the mix with fourth-year pro Tarell Brown for the nickel spot. Brown had the job much of last season and made four starts. At safety, the Niners are set with veterans Michael Lewis at strong safety and Dashon Goldson at free safety. Neither of them gets caught out of position very often and both are good at preventing back-breaking plays over the top. The position only got stronger with the addition of USC safety Taylor Mays, whom many had graded as a first-round prospect and third-year special teams player Reggie Smith. Second-year pro Curtis Taylor saw action in seven games as a rookie and also fits into the mix.

This should be an interesting test for the Vikings, whose second team will be tested by a deepening cast of players in San Francisco. A lot of the names may not be as familiar as those of the Cardinals in recent years, but there is good reason why the Niners are viewed as the favorite to represent the NFC West in the playoffs. They thought that time was coming last year, until the Vikings provided a huge road bump that derailed San Francisco. If there's reason for a second preseason game to have a lot of emotion, the 49ers have plenty of ammunition to throw at the Vikings.


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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