Sunday's matchup against the Minnesota Vikings carries much weight heading into Week 12 of the 2021 season. As both team's sit at 5-5, each are vying for one of the final three spots in the NFC Wild Card race, and a victory will certainly catapult their chances of playing January football.
Both teams enter Sunday with similar stories – a shaky start to the season with questions surrounding their offensive identity. However, both teams have pieced together standout performances that have led to back-to-back wins heading into Week 12.
Eric Smith, team reporter for Vikings.com helped preview Sunday's NFC showdown. Here this week's Four Downs:
1st Down: What Impressed You Most in Week 11 Win?
@KeianaMartinTV: 49ers Playing Complementary Football
There are plenty of standout performances and moments from the 49ers Week 11 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but with inconsistencies earlier in the year, it's been great to watch San Francisco get back to the basics. Offensively, the 49ers have found their footing in the run game, posting their initial season-high of 156 yards against the Los Angeles Rams, followed by 171 last week against the Jaguars. Additionally, the 49ers have been playing clean ball, not registering a single turnover during that span.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has also been playing efficient football as of late, completing just under 73 percent of his passes and two scores against the Jaguars in a game that boasted 42 running plays.
Defensively, the 49ers have gotten in on the turnover battle, notching four takeaways over the last two games, an area of concern earlier in the season. They've also limited opponents to under 10-points in back-to-back weeks.
The defense has been getting the ball to the offense, and the offense is playing smart and putting up points. Overall, that's a recipe for success for San Francisco.
@Eric_L_Smith: Kirk Cousins' Aggressiveness
It's got to be the way the offense performed for a second-straight week. The Packers entered the game with one of the league's top defenses, and the Vikings simply overmatched them to the tune of 408 total yards and 34 points.
Dalvin Cook was effective on the ground, but the big storyline was Kirk Cousins' ability to be aggressive through the air. Cousins, self-admittedly, isn't always the most risky quarterback around. But he let it rip against Green Bay and threw for 341 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
When Minnesota was 3-5, it seemed as if it was trying to figure out its offensive identity. Over the past two games, the Vikings appear to have figured that out by letting Cousins throw it all over the field, including deep, to his playmakers.
2nd Down: A Key Stat Of Note Over the Last Two Wins?
@KeianaMartinTV: Improved Third Down Conversions and Time of Possession
Heading into Week 10, the 49ers ranked 26th in the league in possession average, holding on to the ball on offense for roughly 28.5 minutes per game. That drastically changed over their last two wins (which unsurprisingly were both decisive victories), possessing the ball for an average of nearly 40 minutes over the 60-minute contests.
San Francisco is controlling the clock and putting opposing defenses in a bind with their ability to sustain these long drives. Even members of the 49ers defense have noted the difficulty and fatigue that goes along with having to stay on the field for 12-plus minute drives.
A result of San Francisco's ability to stay on the field came with the team's improvements on third down. The 49ers were sitting 30th in the league at 31.4 percent on third downs (22-for-70) through Week 7. The 49ers overall have converted 14 of their last 26 third down opportunities (54 percent), the second-best mark in the NFL. Even Garoppolo has played better on money downs, completing 8-of-12 third down plays for 102 yards, two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 96.7 over the last two weeks, which has shown in the offense's recent play.
@Eric_L_Smith: WR Justin Jefferson's Target Share
That would be the 21 combined targets to Justin Jefferson in back-to-back wins against the Chargers and Packers. Against Los Angeles, he was targeted 11 times, catching nine passes for 143 yards. There were 10 targets Sunday, with eight receptions for 169 yards and two scores.
Simply put, it appears the Vikings offense is at its best when Jefferson is getting the ball. There have been five games this season where he has been targeted double-digit times, and the Vikings are 4-1 in those contests. (The only loss was by one point to Arizona on a last-second missed field goal).
Jefferson proved he was legit in 2020 with a Super Bowl-era rookie record of 1,400 receiving yards. But he's turned into an absolute superstar in his second season and continues to put the league on notice.
3rd Down: Biggest Area of Concern Heading into Sunday?
@KeianaMartinTV: 49ers Rushing Defense vs. Dalvin Cook
While the last two weeks' numbers might look a bit skewed given the Rams and Jaguars were forced to ditch their run games while playing the entirety of the game from behind, will that be the same case with Dalvin Cook coming to town.
Opposing rushers have been a challenge for San Francisco, allowing several 80-plus yard ball carriers over the past several weeks. Heading into Sunday's game, Cook is averaging almost 92 yards per game and 4.6 yards per attempt.
On the contrary, the 49ers 20th-ranked rushing defense is allowing over 115 yards to opposing teams on the ground. It's certainly an area that needs to be cleaned up, but San Francisco's offense can continue to help alleviate the defense's woes by taking away their running options and forcing Minnesota play through the air.
@Eric_L_Smith: Minnesota's Run Defense
It's an area that has been an issue for the Vikings all season: the run defense. Early on, Minnesota had trouble stopping the ground game even when its defensive front was healthy.
But now the starting defensive line is nearly in shambles. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is out for the season, while defensive tackles Michael Pierce (on Injured Reserve with an elbow injury) and Dalvin Tomlinson (on the Reserve/COVID-19 list) won't play against the 49ers.
The Vikings rank 27th overall against the run (127.0 yards allowed per game) and are even worse in terms of yards allowed per rush (31st at 4.76 yards per carry). The last time Minnesota was at Levi's® Stadium, San Francisco ran for 186 total yards and two scores. The Vikings need to make sure they don't see a repeat performance this time around.
4th Down: Matchup You're Most Looking Forward to on Sunday?
@KeianaMartinTV: Deebo Samuel vs. Vikings Defense
Typically, I would note a specific player or position group I'm looking forward to on Sunday. But following San Francisco's victory over Jacksonville, it's hard to pin what defender will have to keep an eye out for the 49ers do-it-all wideout. Despite catching just one pass last week, Deebo Samuel leads San Francisco's offense with 994 receiving yards, which still ranks second in the NFL through 11 weeks.
But what was the biggest shock was that he led the 49ers entire backfield (and the Jaguars for that matter) with a career-high 79 rushing yards while averaging 9.9 yards per carry.
He's a Swiss Army Knife along San Francisco's offense, where he's used as a blocker, a runner and a pass catcher, and he's been integral to the unit's success this season. Entering into Sunday, Minnesota's passing defense (20th-ranked) and rushing defense (27th-ranked) haven't been up to par this season, and with Elijah Mitchell's availability still in question and the resurgence of Brandon Aiyuk, Samuel could make it a long day for the Vikings 28th-ranked defense in all facets of the offense.
@Eric_L_Smith: RT Brian O'Neill vs. DE Nick Bosa
As mentioned above, Cousins has been red-hot of late through the air. But the only way for him to succeed there is if he has time to get the ball downfield. That's why I'll have my eye on Vikings right tackle Brian O'Neill and 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa on Sunday.
O'Neill might not be a household name yet, but he signed a massive contract extension this summer and is considered to be one of the game's top players at his position. Bosa, on the other hand, appears to be fully healthy again with 10.0 sacks in 10 games.
Cousins was sacked six times in that January 2020 playoff game, with Bosa getting to him twice. That pressure didn't allow Minnesota's offense to click, so it will be up to O'Neill to handle the challenge and keep Bosa at bay by the Bay.