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For the first time in Levi’s Stadium history, the San Francisco 49ers are hosting a playoff game at their Santa Clara home.

As the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the 49ers enjoyed a first-round bye before welcoming Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings Saturday.

The Vikings are fresh off a thrilling upset of the New Orleans Saints, and travel west to face a much healthier 49ers team.

Beating the Saints at home, in overtime, would give any team confidence heading into their next game. For the Vikings, their confidence is at an all-time high.

Kyle Shanahan discussed what kind of boost winning in New Orleans can give a team, and what it means moving forward:

“I mean, any time you beat a good team, it gives you a lot of confidence, especially when you do it in a tough place like down there. But, I thought it gave us a lot of confidence, for whatever that means, and we came back and lost the next week. So, I don’t know what that means. What means is how good we play on Saturday and how good they play on Saturday.”

For the 49ers, they will not have played since their heart-stopping win over the Seattle Seahawks almost two weeks ago. The week off was crucial for the 49ers because it allowed them to rest up, which should result in the returns of three key defensive players.

Bring in the reinforcements

Closing out the season, the 49ers stellar defensive unit began to crack. Unable to sack opposing quarterbacks, while being exposed through the air, the 49ers defense needed that week off badly.

Safety Jaquiski Tartt, defensive end Dee Ford, and linebacker Kwon Alexander are all expected to return Saturday against the Vikings.

Alexander, who tore his pec in Week 9, missed the remainder of the regular season. Saturday, he will be making a triumphant return to the 49ers defense. After an impressively quick two-month rehab from an injury that usually requires 6 to 8 months of rehab, Alexander’s return could not have come at a better time.

Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh said having Alexander back on defense is “exciting”:

“He brings a lot of juice, a lot of energy. Even in practice, if there’s a lull in practice, he’s the first to speak up to get guys going. From a coach’s view, it’s very beneficial to have a guy who regardless, whether it’s bad or good, his voice is projecting positive energy and trying to get people rolling.”

A big reason behind the 49ers’ struggles in the secondary was the absence of their star safety. Without Tartt, backup safety Marcell Harris struggled as a replacement, though he did seem to get a little bit better each week. Tartt is one of the 49ers most important players and is tasked with organizing the secondary.

The most impressive area of the 49ers defense is their defensive line, which has not recorded more than two sacks in any game since Week 12. The 49ers defensive line has been worked to the bone this season, and has been without their second-best pass-rusher Dee Ford down the stretch. Battling hamstring and quad injuries all season long, a healthy Ford can have a huge impact on the 49ers ability to get after Cousins.

Robert Saleh said Ford’s speed creates more space for the inside pass rush:

“Whenever you’ve got a guy outside that can create the space where you get a true one-on-one where they can’t get a hand on you, there’s no makeshift double-team. It just makes everybody on the defensive line better. It kind of unlocks everything. He’s a major asset. That’s why he’s one of the best in football. That’s why he was sought after after this last season. Hopefully he continues to move in the right direction and we can get him back.”

49ers offense versus Vikings defense

In their upset over the Saints, the Vikings defense was stellar. Forcing Drew Brees to turn the ball over multiple times, the Vikings defense was suffocating and held an explosive Saints offense to only 20 points at the Superdome.

Vikings strengths on defense include getting after the quarterback, and playing sound defense over the middle of the field. A combination of good pass-rushers, linebackers, and safeties will be a tough task for Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers offense.

Speaking of Garoppolo, the 49ers quarterback has been to the postseason on two Super Bowl-winning Patriots squads. The difference is that now, Garoppolo will play — and start. Garoppolo has not played a single down in the postseason, though his experience in a playoff atmosphere is valuable, Shanahan said:

“Yes. I think that’s one of the bigger things, Jimmy just going and being able to go to those Super Bowls, watch those playoff games … Jimmy knows exactly what’s going to happen before it happens because he’s been through it at New England. I do think that’s an advantage for players and for coaches just because you know what’s ahead and so it doesn’t surprise you. It’s pretty easy to just stay the course.”

Off the edge, the Vikings will send both Danielle Hunter (14.5 sacks) and Everson Griffen (8 sacks) after Garoppolo. At linebacker, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr will patrol the middle of the field, with Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris in the secondary.

At cornerback, the Vikings have Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes. Ever since coming into the league, Rhodes has been one of the best corners in the NFL. This season, Rhodes has struggled. After a very disappointing season, Rhodes actually played pretty well last week with all things considered. If the 49ers are to have success against the Vikings secondary, chances are they will attack their cornerbacks.

Another area where the Vikings may be vulnerable is defending the run. The 49ers use pre-snap motion more than any team in the league and thrive off outside-zone runs, an area where the Vikings struggle. The 49ers rushing attack and their heavy utilization of the outside-zone run should play in their favor against the Vikings Saturday.

The 49ers best offensive player, George Kittle, may have his hands full with the Vikings, one of the best teams defending opposing tight ends. Allowing only one touchdown all season to tight ends, the Vikings will almost certainly zero in on Kittle in the passing game. If the Vikings are to take away Kittle, expect plenty of looks to Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel.

Vikings offense versus 49ers defense

The Vikings offense has a ton of potential. Littered with offensive weapons, the Vikings (if firing on all cylinders) can attack teams all over the field.

At running back, the Vikings have Dalvin Cook, who broke out this season for 1,654 all-purpose yards and 13 touchdowns. Cook is one of the most explosive runners in the NFL and the backbone of the Vikings defense.

About Minnesota’s success on the ground, Saleh said:

“Yeah, this is a run-first team. You’ve got to be able to stop the run. They do a really good job first and second down. They’re very similar to our offense in regards to play-action pass, it’s max pro, it’s shots downfield, boots, run game. We’ve got to strap up our big-boy pads and get ready to play some ball this week.”

In the passing game, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs provide the Vikings with one of the best pass-catching tandems in the league and a headache for any defense. Diggs is the more talented receiver, but I believe Thielen is the bigger threat to the 49ers defense over the middle. If the 49ers can get after Cousins under center, it will bode well for their ability to cover both Diggs and Thielen.

The biggest question mark surrounding the Vikings offense is Cousins. Last week he may have gotten the “can’t win big games” monkey off his back, a narrative that has followed him his entire career. Behind a rather suspect offensive line, Cousins does not perform well under pressure—and the 49ers will bring plenty of pressure.

Injury Report

For the first time all season, the 49ers had every member of their 53-man roster practicing this week, and take on the Vikings at nearly full-strength.

The Vikings have gotten healthier in recent weeks, getting Cook back from an ankle injury. Unfortunately for Minnesota, another key offensive weapon could miss Saturday’s matchup. Thielen suffered an ankle injury in practice this week and is officially questionable.

The 49ers are much healthier than the Vikings and are expecting all three of Tartt, Ford, and Alexander to suit up Saturday.

Notes

  • Flash back to the end of the Week 17 Seattle game: The 49ers are celebrating on the field after their heart-stopping goal-line stand, and jogging off the field is Jimmy Garoppolo, who celebrated by launching a football into the crowd at Century Link Field. Well, it turns out that the NFL was not thrilled with that move, fining Garoppolo for the stunt.
  • The entire 49ers team benefitted from the first-round bye, especially wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Traded from the Broncos to the 49ers before the trade deadline, Sanders never had a bye week this season after being traded before the Broncos bye week, and after the 49ers had theirs. Playing 17 straight weeks without a break, Sanders was relieved to finally get a week off.
  • Ahkello Witherspoon was benched in Week 17 versus the Seahawks, replaced by Emmanuel Moseley towards the end of the game. Depending on who you ask, some will say Witherspoon under-performed, while others will say he played just fine. Moving forward, it looked as if there was a cornerback controversy for the 49ers. Witherspoon put an end to it by telling reporters that he will start Saturday over Moseley.
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