The goal of any defense – whether it is in a practice or in the Super Bowl – is to get off the field as quickly as possible. Coming up big on third down is what makes a good team a great team and a marginal team into a playoff contender. On the flip side, the failure to come through on third down can bring a great team down. That failure against the 49ers Sunday night was the undoing of the Vikings and the turning point of the game.
To look at the final stat sheet, it doesn't look all that bad. San Francisco made good on just 6 of 16 third downs (a pedestrian 37 percent). However, timing is everything in the NFL and the Vikings' timing in this key stat couldn't have been worse.
The first came on the first drive of the game. Despite winning the coin toss, the Vikings deferred to the second half – keeping Brett Favre from opening the game at QB and putting the defense out first. At first blush, it seemed like a decent idea since the 49ers taking the field were like a toothless shark. Starting QB Alex Smith was in there, but franchise running back Frank Gore was given the night off. Budding superstar Michael Crabtree was in street clothes with a neck injury. Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis was on the sidelines as well. This was the Niners "B-Team" at several skill positions.
However, in the first drive against the starting Vikings defense, Smith faced three third-down situations. He converted all of them. What made that more frustrating for Minnesota was that the first-down Vikings run defense did its job on each occasion. Rookie running back Anthony Dixon gained just two yards on the opening play. The Vikings faced a third-and-2 situation one play later and Smith completed a short pass to Ted Ginn Jr. in front of Antoine Winfield. With the chains moved, Dixon was stopped after just one yard on a tremendous play by E.J. Henderson in his return to the field. One play later, with a third-and-4 at the 49ers 49-yard line, Smith avoided a pass rush with a rollout and completed a 13-yard pass to wide receiver Dominique Ziegler to keep the drive alive in Vikings territory. On his next two carries on first downs, Dixon had runs of zero and minus-1 yard. On that latter, it set up a third-and-11 play from the Vikings 15, Smith completed an 11-yard pass to tight end Delanie Walker in between linebackers for a first down. On the next play, Dixon took a sweep four yards for a touchdown and a lead the Niners would never surrender.
After three drives that failed to pick up a first down to start the second half, the 49ers got a game-changing play on a third-down in which it appeared they were heading off the field with another three-and-out. Second-year QB Nate Davis ran away from a blitz and bought himself some time, launching a bomb that went 65 yards on the fly. Ginn tracked it down and beat safety Husain Abdullah for a 60-yard gain and, it goes without saying, a third-down conversion. Already in scoring position, Dixon continued pounding the ball on the ground. It set up a third-and-1, the kind of situations the Vikings stop. Instead, Dixon bulled up the middle for four yards, moved the chains and kept the drive alive.
The Vikings defense would stiffen at the 10-yard and forced Davis into a couple of misfires, but the damage was done – veteran kicker Joe Nedney popped a 28-yard field goal to give the 49ers their seven-point lead back at 10-3.
To the Vikings' credit, for the rest of the game, the defense limited the 49ers to just one conversion in 10 attempts. But, in those two critical drives early in each half, the Vikings defense surrendered five first downs on six third-down attempts, allowing the 49ers to score the 10 points needed to make the difference in the game.
Turning point: Third-down failures
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