Do you hear that? That’s the sound of thousands of San Francisco 49ers’ fans finally being able to exhale after a historically terrible offseason. It’s time to stop anticipating how things will play out as the team enters a new era under HC Jim Tomsula, and actually see what the outcome will be on the field.
If the 49ers are going to make some noise this year, they’ll have to earn it with a difficult slate of games early on. Week 1 will be tougher than most people think, as the Minnesota Vikings have a talented enough roster to surprise some people in 2015.
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After beginning the 2012 season with an impressive 2-0 start, the Niners looked half asleep when they hooked up with Minnesota in Week 3. The Viking jumped out to a 17-3 lead by halftime, and San Francisco could never really get their offense started in their 24-13 defeat. QB Christian Ponder played one of his better games as a pro, accounting for three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).
QB Alex Smith completed 24 of his 35 throws for the 49ers, but only managed 204 yards through the air. He did throw one touchdown pass to TE Vernon Davis, but the offense couldn’t sustain much beyond that. One reason could have been the fact that they strayed from the running game, as RB Frank Gore was only given 12 carriers. That’s not usually a recipe for success.
Players to Watch
As much as the 49ers needs QB Colin Kaepernick to have the best season of his career, the offensive attacked will most likely be centered around the running game. That makes the development of RB Carlos Hyde extremely important. After an impressive rookie year, Hyde has looked every bit the part of a feature back in the preseason, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Perhaps the most impressive part of Hyde’s game, is his ability to get yards after contact. According to Pro Football Focus, Hyde averaged 2.82 YAC in 2014, good for fifth best among backs with 70 or more carries. He’ll have to continue that trend behind a suspect offensive line.
While the return of RB Adrian Peterson will get all of the headline for Minnesota, how QB Teddy Bridgewater performs is what will most likely make or break the Vikings’ season. The second year signal caller will try to build off a solid rookie season, that saw him go 6-6 as starter while completing 64.4 percent of his passes. Expect new 49ers’ defensive coordinator Eric Mangini to throw some exotic blitzes his way, and how he adjusts to the pressure could have a lot to do with the outcome of this game.
Game Changing Factor
Maybe I’m giving Mangini too much credit, but I think he will throw the kitchen sink at the Vikings’ offense and their young quarterback. Without any film to go off of, Minnesota won’t know whats coming from the 49ers front seven, forcing a few turnovers in the process.
A healthy ILB Navorro Bowman will lead the attack, and help to offset the Peterson factor. I think Bowman is the type of player who makes everyone around him better, and his return to form will have a ripple effect. In his only extended action of the preseason, Bowman looked like himself again, recording nine tackles and two sacks in one half of football.
Stats to Know
If anything is going to hold the 49ers back this year it will be their offensive line play, specifically in pass protection. The unit was abysmal last season, giving up a sack on 9.6 percent on their dropbacks, which was third worst in the NFL. Actually, this was a theme under HC Jim Harbaugh, as they were sixth worst in 2011 (8.9 percent), third worst in 2012 (8.6 percent) and third worst in 2014 (8.6 percent).
The scary part about these numbers is that the o-line is actually expected to be worse this season, so Kaepernick could be running for his life. The Vikings can bring some pressure, as they were ninth in the league in sacks in 2014 with 41.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to expect week t0 week in the NFL, but it’s nearly impossible on opening weekend. This game will be close, but I think the 49ers’ defense forces enough mistakes and the offense can scrape together enough points to help them grind out a low scoring win at home.
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