Welcome to the 2019 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The first divisional round game of the 2019 NFL playoffs will take place at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara as the San Francisco 49ers will host the Minnesota Vikings. Here’s what you should know:
49ERS’ OFFENSE A DISTANT COUSIN OF MINNESOTA’S
The relationship between 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Vikings assistants Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison goes back a long way. Not only did the three of them all work under Shanahan’s father Mike at his last three NFL stops (Kubiak in San Francisco and Denver, Dennison in Denver, Kyle in Washington) but Kyle Shanahan also worked for Kubiak in Houston from 2006-09 – serving the last two years as offensive coordinator. Not surprisingly, Dennison replaced Kyle when he left for Washington, and Dennison also worked with Kubiak in Baltimore and during their second tour of duty in Denver.
Thus, it’s no surprise that both of their offenses are extremely similar. Like Kubiak and Dennison (and his father before him), Shanahan relies on an offense that is West Coast-based in its passing game and is extremely creative in its route combinations and in its flood concepts, and also utilizes a lot of play-action passes, bootlegs and rollouts designed around the threat of outside-zone runs.
The 49ers like to have two running backs on the field most of the time in order to give credibility to the belief that they will call a running play at any time. According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit, “Shanahan plays with two backs more than any schemer, by a wide margin…. with two backs in, the Niners compel defenses to prepare for more run possibilities, which limits their options in coverages. Shanahan exploits the suddenly predictable coverages through route combinations or mismatch-making formation wrinkles.”
Nearly two years ago San Francisco brought in former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon to be an important cog in the Niners’ running game, but he has dealt with a knee injury that has kept him off the field throughout that timeframe. Nevertheless, other backs like Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida each recorded 500 or more rushing yards in his absence and combined for 1,939 yards on the ground – second in the NFL only to Baltimore.
Handing the ball off to them has been quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. “Jimmy G”, as some like to call him, is a former backup to Tom Brady in New England and was acquired in 2017 for a second-round draft pick. The investment in him has been worth it – when he’s been on the field (he missed most of last season with a knee injury), Garoppolo has been decisive, accurate, intelligent and shown to possess a quick release, solid arm strength and good mobility. His one bugaboo this year has been ball security – he’s fumbled 10 times and lost five of them.
Garoppolo’s weapons in the passing game have been stellar. Two-time All-Pro tight end George Kittle has blossomed into one of the league’s best at his position and is dominant both in the receiving game and at the point of attack. Midseason pickup Emmanuel Sanders is still a crafty route runner and has fit into Shanahan’s system like a glove due to his playing for Kubiak and Dennison in Denver. His knowledge of the system has been valuable for youngsters like speedster Deebo Samuel and Dante Pettis, who has taken on burner Marquise Goodwin’s duties in the wake of Goodwin’s season-ending knee injury.
Perhaps the most under-appreciated players on the Niners’ offense have been the ones who have been blocking for the skill players. Those duties have fallen to versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk and an offensive line consisting of former All-Pro Joe Staley, Laken Tomlinson, Ben Garland (who has done an admirable job filling in for injured center Weston Richburg), Mike Person and former first-round pick Mike McGlinchey.
SAN FRANCISCO’S DEFENSE A DESCENDANT OF SEATTLE’S
When Shanahan was hired by San Francisco, he brought in Robert Saleh, a longtime protégé of Gus Bradley, as his defensive coordinator. Bradley, of course, was one of the original architects (along with Pete Carroll) of the Seattle Seahawks’ fabled Cover Three defensive scheme (deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield), which they employed en route to back-to-back NFC championships and a Super Bowl title between 2013-14.
Saleh isn’t the only one passing on wisdom of the scheme to his charges. The signing of Richard Sherman last season has done wonders for the rest of the 49ers’ defensive backs and Sherman’s leadership, intelligence and ability to still perform at a high level at the age of 31 has made him an important contributor to this defense.
Sherman’s length and ability to excel in press coverage has made him the prototype for Cover Three-style cornerbacks for years – so much so that the 49ers made sure that two other corners on their roster (Ahkello Witherspoon and Dontae Johnson) are also at least 6’2”. K’Waun Williams, Emmanuel Moseley and D.J. Reed Jr. are behind them on the depth chart, and safeties Jimmie Ward (who has found a home at free safety after changing positions a lot in his earlier years) and Jaquiski Tartt are the starters on the back end.
The 49ers have an excellent pair of linebackers for their nickel packages in underrated sideline-to-sideline playmaker Kwon Alexander (who will return from a torn pectoral suffered on October 31st) and the rising Fred Warner. In front of them is one of the NFL’s deepest defensive lines, made up of rookie Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas, Sheldon Day and Earl Mitchell.
The ability of the 49ers’ defensive line to come at other teams in waves (and their impressive depth) has led to the team being able to consistently utilize fresh bodies and wear opposing offenses down. It’s resulted in San Francisco finishing the regular season first in passing yards allowed and tying for fifth – with the Vikings – in sacks.
VIKINGS’ DEFENSE STILL SOLID
Minnesota’s defensive scheme is based off zone coverages with both safeties playing deep (usually Cover Two, Cover Four, etc.) and those safeties are Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, who might be the league’s best duo – they’re a great combination of versatility, aggressiveness and intelligence. This coverage philosophy usually eliminates those two from helping against the run, but head coach Mike Zimmer has a defensive line made up of sturdy defensive tackle Linval Joseph and one of the NFL’s best edge rush pairs in Everson Griffin and Danielle Hunter.
Linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are adept in coverage, stopping the run and blitzing, and they and other defenders usually arrive at opposing quarterbacks via selective overload blitzes and rush schemes through the A gaps – the quickest path to the pocket.
The Vikings have two excellent cornerbacks in Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes who are physical, sure tacklers and strong cover artists, but the depth behind them is suspect. While nickel corner Mackensie Alexander and second-year man Mike Hughes are both talented, they are also dealing with injuries and will not play against the 49ers.
MINNESOTA’S OFFENSE IMPROVED OVER LAST YEAR
The promotion of Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator and the hirings of Kubiak and Dennison have allowed the Vikings to move towards an offensive scheme that quarterback Kirk Cousins is familiar with from his time in Washington. Cousins is a savvy, accurate signal-caller who does very well when put in play designs that allow him to capitalize on his strengths – namely mobility and bold decision-making, and Kubiak knows how to get the best out of him.
Passing-wise, the Vikings are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels. Minnesota’s receivers – route-running extraordinaire Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, one of the quickest wideouts in the NFL – also excel out of bunch and stack alignments.
Minnesota’s rushing offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Countless tailbacks have had success in it dating back to Kubiak’s time as Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator in Denver, and executing these blocks are ex-Lion Riley Reiff, Pat Elflein, mobile rookie center Garrett Bradbury, ex-Titan Josh Kline and Brian O’Neill. Running behind them is Dalvin Cook, a shifty third-year ball carrier out of Florida State who’s finally 100 percent healthy and as a result, his production has exploded in this new system.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph remains a good red zone threat and rookie backup Irv Smith Jr. is also talented in his own right.