With the 2015 regular season upon us, it's time to break down the San Francisco 49ers Week 1 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. Not only do the 49ers get to open the season at home, but it will be the first 'Monday Night Football' game hosted at Levi's® Stadium.
That means Four Downs is back with four topics to preview the Week 1 contest, courtesy of the trio of writers at 49ers.com.
1st Down: The player I'm most excited to see is...
@Joe_Fann: NaVorro Bowman
There is only one answer here. Bowman's preseason performances went better than anyone could have hoped and now we're all left with our mouths watering until we get to see No. 53 in regular season action. The linebacker's return to meaningful football for the first time in 18 months is a momentous occasion for a number of reasons. For starters, it's a testament to Bowman's mental toughness and work ethic throughout the entire 2014 season and this past offseason. His return to the lineup also provides a huge boost to the 49ers defense for the coming season. Everyone in attendance at Levi's® Stadium on Monday is sure to get chills when Bowman leads the team out of the tunnel.
@TylerEmerick: Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick's offseason was as closely followed and scrutinized as any player in the NFL. None of those armchair opinions, however, will mean anything after 7:20 p.m. PT on Monday night. Following a reined-in preseason, we will finally get a glimpse at how the 2015 version of Kaepernick differs from the already immensely-gifted player we saw in previous seasons. How comfortable does he look in the pocket? How often does he use his legs? How much chemistry has he built with his new weapons? Much of those questions will take several weeks to answer, but this is the first time we'll see Kaepernick truly in command of Geep Chryst's new offense – a luxury not afforded to him in the preseason as the 49ers focused on their gameplan rather than adjusting to what the opposing defense showed. As with any NFL team, the quarterback's performance goes a long way in determining the outcome of a game.
The 49ers gave the former Baltimore Ravens wide receiver a five-year contract in free agency with the intenions of utilizing his all-around talent in the passing game. A player like Smith, who has a career average of 16.9 yards per reception and is coming off an 11-touchdown-catch season, is someone who pairs nicely with Kaepernick's big arm. Smith is known for the deep ball, but he also prides himself on being a complete player. The 49ers will surely look to utilize Smith early and often in this game. Chryst has said his goal is to feature multiple players in this week's gameplan. There's no doubt that Smith is a key cog in those play-calling decisions. He ranks second among all active NFL receivers with 62 consecutive starts. No. 63 for Smith will be his first in a black 49ers uniform. It should be a fun one to watch.
2nd Down: The x-factor in the game will be...
@Joe_Fann: Vernon Davis
Davis was one of the most impressive players throughout 49ers training camp. The veteran tight end showed he still has plenty of speed to get behind defensive backs, and he's a nightmare of a matchup for linebackers. We didn't get much of a glimpse of Davis during the preseason, which makes me even more excited to see the tight end take the field in the regular season. A lot of attention has been paid, for good reason, on Smith, but don't sleep on a bounce-back season from the man who caught 13 touchdowns as recently as 2013.
Man did Bowman look impressive this preseason. Yes, it was only the preseason, but the All-Pro linebacker convincingly passed every test. The most encouraging sign had to be how well his knee held up while playing the entire first half against the Denver Broncos in Week 3. Bowman was worried that the knee might tighten up on him while the offense had possession, but he appeared every bit as explosive in the second quarter as he did in the first. Against Minnesota, Bowman will play an entire game for the first time since being injured a year and a half ago. No doubt he'll have extra fuel to his fire. And Eric Mangini's aggressive scheme figures to give Bowman plenty of opportunities to make plays. Translation? Look out Teddy Bridgewater and Co.
@TaylorPrice: Ian Williams
With Jon Sullivan going on short-term injured reserve this week for the Vikings, Williams will face second-team center Joe Berger on MNF. Williams' role appears to be advantageous on paper, but he'll have to utilize his strength and short-area quickness to disrupt the interior of Minnesota's offensive line. Bowman totaled 18 tackles when the 49ers dropped a Week 3 road game to the Vikings in 2012. Many of those stops came against Adrian Peterson, of course. So if Williams does his job and occupies Minnesota's center and clogs up running lanes, Bowman and Michael Wilhoite will have a better experience in bringing down Peterson and causing more pressure on Bridgewater to perform. The nose tackle is always the unsung hero. In this case, Williams' play will lead to great things for the inside 'backers.
3rd Down: The 49ers first touchdown will be scored by...
@Joe_Fann: Pierre Garçon
I'd love to go big and say it will be a 50-yard touchdown from Kaepernick to Smith, but I think it will ultimately be Hyde. The 49ers will be committed to running the ball in 2015, which bodes well for Hyde's chances to top his four-touchdown rookie campaign last year. The 'back enters the season on the heels of a productive preseason in which he carried the ball 13 times for 73 yards (5.6-yard average). Hyde is a physical runner and will be a force inside the 20-yard line. The running back's improved skills as a pass catcher only help his odds of finding the end zone.
@TylerEmerick: Bruce Ellington
Going somewhat off the beaten path here, Ellington gets the nod because of how many different ways he can score. As a rookie last year, the wide receiver caught two touchdown passes and ran for another. His speed makes him a home-run threat, as the San Diego Chargers found out a week ago, and his ability to make defenders miss could prompt the 49ers to get him red-zone touches. Oh yeah, and he might also return punts and/or kickoffs for San Francisco. Ellington was hampered by hamstring injuries this offseason, but now that he's healthy, the 24-year-old seems poised for a breakout sophomore campaign.
@TaylorPrice: Anquan Boldin
The 13-year veteran will get on the board first. Why? Because he happens to be Kaepernick's favorite target over the last two seasons. Boldin hauled in a combined 168 receptions from Kaepernick in 2013 and 2014. Twelve have gone for touchdowns. In this particular matchup, the tough wideout will face young Minnesota cornerbacks. The added experience could lend itself to some crafty routes and timely clutch plays, maybe even a trip into the black-painted end zones. Now it's just a matter of whether or not somebody beats Boldin to the end zone first.
4th Down: The 49ers key to victory is...
@Joe_Fann: To win the battle in the trenches
As I alluded to above, the 49ers will try to establish their ground game early and often. The Vikings, especially with the return of Peterson, are sure to do the same. In 2014, Minnesota ranked 14th in rushing offense. Conversely, the team ranked 25th in stopping the run. Williams will be a key factor in the 49ers success against Peterson along with the rest of the San Francisco's front seven. The 49ers averaged 4.7 yards per carry during the preseason and will look to carry over that success into Week 1. Whomever is able to control the line of scrimmage will likely come out of the game 1-0.
@TylerEmerick: Success on first and second down
With Hyde leading the charge, San Francisco's ground attack should once again be a strength. If the 49ers can establish the run against a strong Vikings front seven led by Anthony Barr, naturally that would set up Kaepernick and the passing game for success. Limiting penalties is another crucial factor that Jim Tomsula has stressed to his team. Keeping third downs to manageable yardages would allow San Francisco to keep Minnesota guessing. If the offense falls behind the sticks, the Vikings can pin their ears back and rush the passer. Last year, Minnesota allowed its opponents to convert on 42 percent of third downs, which ranked 20th in the NFL.
@TaylorPrice: The fourth quarter
It's no secret that the 49ers let games slip away in the final 15 minutes last season. The team's offseason focus of using tempo on offense and streamlining the offensive playbook was instituted so the team could be faster in key moments of the game. There's nothing more important than crunch-time football in the NFL. So it is with that in mind that the Tomsula-led 49ers will look to emphasize their offseason changes in the waning moments of MNF. Out-scoring, out-gaining and out-competing the Vikings will be critical in the fourth quarter and in determining who starts the year 1-0 and 0-1.