The Mistake Green Bay Can’t Afford to Make

Yes, the game was pretty much decided by the time the Minnesota Vikings broke their huddle to line up for a third-and-one on the San Francisco 40-yard line.  There was only 2:53 left in the game, and the Viking were on the short end of the 27-10 score (which would be the final) (gamebook) (summary).  The next three snaps would be a kind of microcosm of their day.

The last time they had run the ball – and I grant that it had been awhile (since the 11:00 mark of the quarter) – they ran underneath Pro-Bowl defensive end Nick Bosa.  Modest as it was, the six yards gained on that run were the most they would have on any running play that afternoon.  Now, on third-and-one, they decided that they would run at Bosa again.  The difference here, of course, was that on third-and-one Nick was looking for the run, and easily stood tackle Riley Reiff up and dumped running back Dalvin Cook for no gain.

Quickly racing to the line on fourth-and-one, Minnesota tried the quarterback sneak – which was also stuffed.  The Vikings would get another shot, though, as San Fran had used a timeout just before the play.  On their second fourth-and-one, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw deep up the left sideline for receiver Stefon Diggs, who maneuvered around cornerback Emmanuel Moseley just enough to get his hands on the ball at about the 6-yard line before it slipped out of his arms. A second later, safety Jimmie Ward drove him to the ground.

That would be Minnesota’s last offensive play of the season, as the 49ers would consume the rest of the clock.

Enjoying the best season of his career, Cousins – whose 107.4 passer rating was the fourth best in football – led Minnesota to an excellent offensive season.  Their 407 points scored were the eighth most in the NFL, and the passing success was linked to a revived running game behind Cook, who with 1135 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, also had his best year.  Minnesota finished as the sixth-best running team (averaging 133.3 yards per game) and were fourth in rushing attempts with 476.  Counting the playoffs, they finished with 20 or more points scored in 12 of their 18 games, including 5 games where they scored over 30 points, highlighted by a 42-30 battering of Detroit in Week Seven.

I point all of this out, because you certainly wouldn’t have suspected any of this by watching them play last Saturday.  It is rare in the playoffs that a team is dominated to the extent that San Francisco obliterated the Viking offense.

For the game, Minnesota managed just 7 first downs (none of them rushing), and went 2 for 12 on third down (0-for-6 in the second half).  They were also 0-for-1 in the red zone, on their way to just 147 total yards.  They managed just 21:33 of clock time, with only 9:25 of that happening in the second half.  They were out-rushed by San Francisco 186 yards to 21.

Cousins and the passing game managed just 172 yards and an 84.3 rating while absorbing 6 sacks and numerous other pressures.

Surprisingly, though (or, perhaps not), this was the second time in four weeks that the Viking offense had been similarly dominated in a critical game.  Their Week 16 loss at home to Green Bay (with the NFC North Division title on the line) played out eerily similar (a 23-10 Viking loss).

In that game they were also held to just 7 first downs (1 of them running), went 4-15 (just 2-7 in the second half) on third down, 0-for-2 on fourth down, and 0-for-1 in the red zone on their way to 139 total yards.  They controlled the ball for only 22:28 against Green Bay – including just 11:47 of the second half, as the Packers outrushed them, 184-57.

Cousins was sacked 5 times in that game, throwing for 122 yards with a 58.8 rating.

The underlying cause in both of these batterings was the same.  Minnesota stopped running the ball.  They had only 16 running plays against the Packers (just 5 in the second half).  They ran only 10 times against San Fran (just 3 of those after halftime).

The 49ers, of course, gave Minnesota every reason to think that they couldn’t run the ball against them.  Favorite plays that the Vikings had run all season returned little in San Fran.

Earlier in the game (before the third-down-run attempt), Minnesota had tried a couple of quick running plays that ran away from Nick Bosa.  These were plays on which Bosa wasn’t even blocked, as the Vikings expected Cook to be well gone by the time Bosa could make an appearance from the other side of the formation.

But Nick made both of those tackles after a total of one yard gained.  Minnesota hadn’t fully accounted for left defensive tackle Sheldon Day.

A former fourth-round draft choice of Jacksonville in 2016, Sheldon fell to San Francisco about midway through the 2017 season.  Not as large as some interior linemen – Sheldon is “only” listed as 294 – Day brings an above-average quickness to the interior line while maintaining sufficient lower body strength to get under double-teams.  Since the injury to starter D.J. Jones, Day has quietly carved out a larger niche for himself in the 49er defensive scheme.  Sheldon has started each of the last three games, seeing the field for about half the defensive snaps.

Last Saturday, he was a significant deterrent to what little running game Minnesota attempted.  It was Day clogging up the point of attack in both of the earlier runs that sent Cook back toward the middle where Bosa could claim him.

Mental errors by tight ends also hampered the running game.

On the game’s second play, left guard Pat Elflein left DeForest Buckner to penetrate into the Viking backfield while he hunted up a linebacker.  Buckner was supposed to be trapped by Kyle Rudolph, who ran right by him.  After Kyle had finished running the complete distance behind the line of scrimmage without blocking anyone, he glanced back over shoulder with the look of a man who knew he’d forgotten something fairly important.  Buckner, of course, tackled Cook in the backfield for a one-yard loss.

Now, at the 9:25 mark of the first quarter, with a first-and-ten at their own 21, the Vikings tried an off-tackle run.  Josh Kline pulled right-to-left from his right guard position.  Imagine his surprise when he arrived at the point of attack to find that tight end Irv Smith Jr. was also pulling (left-to-right) from his position on the end of the line.  Both would-be blockers – heading for the same point of attack – collided, allowing an easy tackle on the part of 49er linebacker Fred Warner.

By any assessment, this was not a banner offensive day for Minnesota.  Still, at the end of the day, the team with football’s fourth-most rushing attempts finished with just 10.

So dependent on the run all season, Minnesota surprisingly showed no commitment at all to the running game, even though they weren’t seriously behind until the fourth quarter.  Only twice in the contest did Minnesota run on consecutive plays.  They ran on their first two offensive plays of the game.

Then, on their first possession of the second quarter, after Cousins was sacked at the Viking 4-yard line, Minnesota called two safe running plays to avoid an end zone disaster and set up to punt.

And that was it.

This is the mistake that Green Bay simply cannot make.  They cannot afford to abandon the run and become one-dimensional.  The 49er pass rush will have them for desert.

And teams have run against San Francisco from time to time.  Three times they allowed more than 140 rushing yards in a game – losing two of those – while they finished just seventeenth in the league against the run (allowing 112.3 yards a game) and twenty-third in average yards per attempt (yielding 4.5 yards per).  In fact, the 10 rushes by the Vikings were the fewest rushing attempts any team has made against San Francisco this season.

Even if the Packers (who averaged a healthy 4.4 yards per rush this season) don’t enjoy great early success on the ground against San Fran they have to keep trying.

The Packers, themselves, never really established a true offensive identity.  On their way to placing eighteenth in total offense, Green Bay finished seventeenth passing and fifteenth rushing.  Their approach saw them generally sticking with whatever was working that day.  They had 5 games in 2019 where they ran for more than 140 yards.  But they also had 6 games when they ran the ball fewer than 25 times.

In all honesty, whatever their approach the Packers will be hard pressed to sustain much offense against the refreshed 49er defense.  Their only significant advantage on offense stems from the fact that San Francisco’s all-world cornerback Richard Sherman doesn’t change sides of the field.  He will camp the entire game on the offensive right side – meaning that the Packers can avoid having Sherman shut down their only reliable receiver (Davante Adams) by simply lining him up on the other side of the formation.

This will allow Green Bay a few shot plays, but won’t keep them on the field or keep San Francisco’s offense on the sideline.

For that, they will need their running game.

And a healthy dose of luck.

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