The San Francisco 49ers are sitting at a spot that they haven't seen in six years as they prepare to host the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional Round of the 2020 Playoffs. It was 2013 when San Francisco last made a postseason appearance. This week's game also marks the first-ever playoff match in Levi's® Stadium history.
Riding high off of their thrilling upset in overtime against the New Orleans Saints, the Vikings are looking to carry the momentum into Santa Clara on Saturday. We are joined by Vikings team reporter Eric Smith to get an insider's look at this Minnesota team with sights set on extending their postseason run. Here's what Smith had to say about this Vikings team:
Q: Not many pundits gave Kirk Cousins, who was 7-16 in his career in primetime and playoff games, a chance to beat the Saints in the Wild Card Round on Sunday,. However, the Vikings prevailed in the overtime victory which was headlined by the quarterback's game-winning drive. Looking at Sunday's game, what was the biggest takeaway from Cousins and his performance against New Orleans?
Smith: The biggest takeaway was that Cousins elevated his game and delivered in perhaps the biggest moment of his career. Kirk has been knocked a lot in his career, but he shut a lot of people up with the way he performed in overtime by hitting on three big throws that ultimately led to a Vikings win. Cousins was good in the first four quarters, not making any mistakes and simply doing what was asked of him. But he flipped a switch once overtime started, and led the Vikings to one of the biggest wins in franchise playoff history — and in Cousins' own career.
Q: Cousins is coming off one the biggest wins of his career and looked to find a rhythm in overtime. With Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph healthy, what will Cousins have to do to carry over his performance from the Wild Card game?
Smith: He will need to get rid of the ball quickly, as the 49ers feature a ferocious pass rush with those handful of first-rounders along the defensive front. But he also doesn't need to try and do too much. As you mentioned, he has a trio of strong options in the passing game, and I'd add running back Dalvin Cook to that group, too. Cousins is rarely asked to throw for 300-plus yards per game in this offense. If he can get the ball in the hands of his playmakers and avoid sacks, he will have done his job Saturday.
Q: Dalvin Cook was banged up in the final weeks of the regular season and averaged 36 rushing yards in his final four week. However, he returned on Sunday with a tremendous 130-yard, two touchdown performance against the Saints. What's led to Cook's success last weekend, especially in a hostile environment like New Orleans?
Smith: Simply put, Cook makes the offense click. He's proven himself to be a dynamic running back in 2019 with 1,100-plus rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, which forced defenses to key in on him. And with the Vikings favoritism to both the running game and play-action passes, Cook's presence on the field opens things up for the entire offense. If teams want to play back and not respect the run, Cook can gash a defense. And if they creep up and sell out on him, a fake to Cook helps Cousins in the passing game. Plus, as I mentioned above, Cook is strong in the passing game, too, as he was second on the team with 53 receptions in the regular season.
Q: The 49ers and Vikings finished the regular season tied with the fifth-most sacks in 2019 (48). Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer threw a wrench in the Saints plans by moving defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter inside on various plays. How much did this wrinkle in Minnesota's game plan play in their favor against New Orleans?
Smith: It was a brilliant game plan by Zimmer and his staff, and something the Saints likely weren't expecting. The Vikings talked after the game about how Brees doesn't like to be pressured up the middle … so why not try to get to him with your two best pass rushers on the inside? Brees was fine on Sunday, but he certainly didn't light it up as he so often does. The constant pressure by the Vikings collection of pass rushers played a big part in that. Players were coy in the locker room this week about whether or not that would be the scheme again, but it will at least give San Francisco's offensive coaches something to think about.
Q: A beneficiary of the move was safety Anthony Harris, who came up with a big interception off of Drew Brees, something that doesn't come by easy against New Orleans. He tied the regular season league lead with six interceptions on the year and was marked as PFF's highest graded safety. His counterpart Harrison Smith is just behind him at third. How has this duo played off of one another and helped each other succeed?
Smith: Harris has blossomed into a star over the past two seasons, even if he still doesn't get the credit he deserves. Yes, he was among the top safeties in the game in 2019, but rarely gets mentioned by national pundits. Perhaps he gets lost in the shadows amongst a bunch of big names on defense. But Harris and Smith certainly work well together, and it helps they have known each other since the spring of 2015. Even if Harris hasn't started the entire time, he has gotten a feel for how Smith plays all over the field. Plus, both players are incredibly smart and rarely make mental mistakes on the back end.
Q: Who would you nominate as an offensive and defensive underrated star that's been key to Minnesota's success this season?
Smith: I was tempted to go with Harris on defense but we already covered him above. I'll actually go with Everson Griffen, although it's weird to call him an underrated star. It's clear that Danielle Hunter has become the best pass rusher on the team. And with Griffen now 32 years old, the chorus of doubters has grown over the past year or two. But he turned in a solid year with 8.0 sacks and was among the league leaders in quarterback pressures, too. Sunday's performance against the Saints was vintage Everson, as he was all over the place. There is still no doubt he is looked at as the Vikings emotional and vocal leader on defense.
Offensively, how about right tackle Brian O'Neill? He was a second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft out of the University of Pittsburgh, and actually began his college career as a tight end. He has the athletic traits the Vikings like on their offensive line, and has bulked up and gotten stronger, too. Watch O'Neill's block on Saints defensive end Cam Jordan on Cousins' throw to Thielen in overtime. Jordan had 15.5 sacks in the regular season, but O'Neill gets the job done and allows Cousins to get the ball off. The right tackle didn't surrender a single sack in the regular season, and has quickly grown into a leader along the line in his second season. He'll need to be good again Saturday, too, especially against the 49ers pass rush.