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Stats Perform’s NFL Playoff Matchup to Watch: Vikings at 49ers

By: Stats Perform

When the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers kick off the divisional round of the playoffs on Saturday, expect the 49ers to make things difficult on the Vikings’ offense.

Specifically, Minnesota’s offensive line should have its hands full against a San Francisco front four that was Stats Perform’s top pass-rushing line during the regular season. The 49ers’ defense generates some form of pressure on 63.4% of pass-rushing opportunities, by far the highest of any remaining playoff team. 

Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings will likely opt for a run-first approach to try and attack the battered interior of the 49ers’ defensive line, as injuries have left waiver-wire pickup Sheldon Day as a starter. While the Vikings’ offensive front has had its struggles, all Cook needs is a small opening to get to those second-level defenders. Cook has found holes all season and he’s great at avoiding negative plays (just 9.1% of rushes result in negative yardage).

Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins will have to make solid decisions under pressure in this one. On average, the 49ers have a league-high 7.16 defenders in the box and give opposing QBs just 2.65 seconds to release the ball. About 22 percent of the time, the 49ers rush five or six defenders, leading to an incompletion, sack or interception about 47 percent of the time. If Cousins can manage the 49ers’ blitz, he should be able to hit his targets. Cousins, however, is at the bottom of the list with an average release time of 2.93 seconds. Even with a banged-up interior, San Francisco should be able to apply pressure with its aggressive approach. 

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers’ offense has come a long way. Kyle Shanahan has built around Jimmy Garoppolo’s skill set, using a run-first approach to allow for lots of screens and play-action passing. The 49ers’ bread and butter is their outside zone scheme, which they run about a third of the time. It’s one of their most successful concepts as their ball carriers run for an average of 3.4 yards before contact – the second-most among teams who use outside zone more than 15% of the time. San Francisco’s offensive line, led by stalwart left tackle Joe Staley, will have to be stout in the passing game as well. Vikings pass rushers Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter accumulated over 60 QB pressures apiece this season.

Jimmy Garoppolo of the San Francisco 49ers

These teams have two of the most run-heavy approaches on offense in the NFL, and neither sports a particularly strong run defense. As such, both teams should succeed on the ground, and the game will likely come down to who has the most success generating chunk plays through the air. San Francisco might be the favorites, but we certainly wouldn’t sleep on the Vikings.

Advanced analytics and data analysis provided by Stats Perform’s Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads