It was billed as the return of the NFL's all-time passing leader, but it turned out to be another dominant performance by a Joe Staley-led 49ers defense.
Not only did the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker and the rest of 49ers first-team defense disrupt the preseason debut of future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, they also stole his spotlight in front of a national audience viewing NBC's "Sunday Night Football."
The defense didn't stop with Favre however; it continued to limit Minnesota's production throughout its 15-10 preseason home-opening victory at Candlestick Park. Favre and his three backups combined to complete 17-of-33 attempts for only 79 yards.
The defensive output began on Minnesota's opening drive with Willis providing a forceful sack of Favre, blitzing right through the heart of the Vikings offensive line then latching on to the legendary quarterback before violently knocking him to the ground. And even after the Vikings pulled within a field goal late in the game, the defense stopped the comeback bid once and for all with defensive tackle Derek Walker sacking Joe Webb for a safety on the final play of the game.
The sacks were highlight-reel worthy; Favre's preseason debut and Minnesota's offensive production were not.
Willis' aggressive play provided a starting point to a solid defensive effort against the Vikings (1-1), in which the 49ers (2-0) held the defending NFC North champions to just 193 total yards.
But it wasn't only the first-team defense which provided the highlights. The backup defensive players continued to apply pressure on Minnesota's quarterbacks. Only Webb's 48-yard touchdown run with less than two minutes remaining in the game spoiled the overall effort.
"We missed some tackles and I think a lot of teams struggle with that in the first two preseason games," cornerback Shawntae Spencer explained. "Other than the touchdown run, I thought we played well as a defense. The young guys played very well too, even though they had some of the same issues we had with tackling."
Webb and backup Tarvaris Jackson rushed for a combined 71 yards on five carries. But on the other hand, the 49ers contained Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson to an average of 2.7 yards per carry (six carries for 17 yards).
And while much of the credit will go to the defense for successfully limiting the production of Minnesota's offensive units, the 49ers first-team offense was equally responsible in establishing the tone for the total team victory.
"I thought we started fast," head coach Mike Singletary said after the win. "I thought our offense was in good rhythm from the beginning. Alex (Smith) did a good job of having our offense in a good groove."
After receiving the opening kickoff, the 49ers first offensive unit looked sharp with Smith completing his first four passes of their opening 12-play, 70-yard touchdown drive. Unlike the previous week against the Indianapolis Colts, the unit scored on their opening possession with a four-yard rushing touchdown from rookie running back Anthony Dixon, who filled in for a resting Frank Gore.
"It's what we always talk about, starting fast, something we didn't do a lot last year and something we worked harder on," Smith said on a night in which he completed 9-of-13 passes for 88 yards with a quarterback rating of 88.8.
Smith completed more passes on the opening drive (four) than his total number of completions in the preseason opener against Indianapolis (three) and said that a comfortable state of mind enabled his fast start.
While the 49ers experienced early success, Favre's latest return to the NFL was not one to remember.
Trailing by a touchdown when he first took the field, Favre was immediately met with displeasure from the 49ers Faithful, who surely didn't forget battles against the 20-year veteran from his days with the Green Bay Packers. But that wasn't the worst of the treatment he received on his opening drive of the 2010 preseason.
Minnesota started out in a no-huddle offense, but only managed to pick up one first down, largely in part to the vicious sack by Willis, who knocked Favre down for a 10-yard loss on the third play of the drive.
"It felt good to be back out there, under the lights where it counts," Willis said after he also made his first appearance in the 2010 preseason and totaled a team-high four tackles. "To be able to get after him today felt good."
The first drive would be it for Favre. He finished the night completing his only pass, a 13-yard gain to Peterson. On the Vikings second drive, Jackson took the snaps and went on to hand the ball off five times on Minnesota's first and only scoring drive of the opening 30 minutes. Peterson couldn't carry the Vikings into the end zone however; instead Minnesota finished their 12-play, 50-yard drive with a 40-yard field goal by veteran kicker Ryan Longwell.
Without the services of Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis (knee strain) and No. 1 wide receiver Michael Crabtree (neck) the 49ers first-team offense received a boost from the play of Walker and wideout Dominique Zeigler. The duo combined for 67 yards on five receptions in the first half, proving to be valuable targets for Smith in the passing game.
At the start of the second half, second-year signal caller Nate Davis entered the game as the 49ers quarterback and remained in the game for the duration of action.
Although Davis' first drive stalled, it was much more memorable the second time around.
Needing two yards to pick up a third down from his own 10-yard line, Davis rolled to his right and launched a 60-yard deep ball to Ginn, putting the 49ers at Minnesota's 36-yard line. The second-year quarterback failed to convert on a 3rd-and-4 from inside the red zone, but the drive allowed Joe Nedney to convert his first field goal of the preseason from 28 yards out. It put the 49ers up 10-7 with 6:25 left in the third quarter.
With the 49ers marching again under Davis' direction, the lead was almost lost on a Dixon fumble which was returned 70 yards for a Vikings defensive touchdown. But a challenge from Singletary caused the fumble to be overturned and set up Nedney once again to connect on a 31-yard field goal later in the drive.
It put the 49ers up 13-3 with 14:00 remaining in the game and appeared to be all the points the 49ers would need to keep the game in control, but Webb's long touchdown scramble put the final outcome in question.
Thankfully for the 49ers, veteran wideout Jason Hill recovered Minnesota's ensuing onside kick. The Vikings forced a 49ers three-and-out, and were left with one last play at their own 8-yard line.
Webb's scrambling ability was held in check however, as Walker sacked him in the end zone thanks to outside linebacker Bruce Davis' pressure from the right edge.
"I was thinking 'don't let him out of the pocket,'" Davis said of the play. "He shook a couple of us off earlier in the game and we all saw how fast he was with how he broke loose and scored. It was just about keeping him in the pocket and if he came your way, try to get him down."
Singletary was not pleased to give Minnesota new life late in the game.
"There was no reason we needed to be in that situation fielding an onside kick at the end of the game," he said.
Although it wasn't a predicament their head coach envisioned, finishing the game with a sack was a good ending for the situation the 49ers put themselves in.
"That was a great way to end it, just to really put an exclamation point on it and finish with a win," Davis said.
The 49ers will travel across the Bay next Saturday to take on the Oakland Raiders and with one final week of training camp remaining, the team will approach the next week with the same focus they've had throughout camp.
"We still have some two-a-days this week," Smith said. "Hopefully we'll get a couple of guys back and take advantage of it."