As soon as the 49ers and Jerick McKinnon agreed to a deal in free agency last March, coach Kyle Shanahan started preparing for a season-opening battle against the league’s best defense from 2017.
But that plan for the Minnesota Vikings was flipped upside down when the running back suffered a season-ending ACL tear of his right knee Saturday, leaving the second-year head coach just over a week to devise something new.
“I’m not going to lie, it changes things pretty drastically,” Shanahan said.
The Vikings return nearly all their starters after finishing last season with the NFL’s top-ranked defense both in yardage and scoring. They added former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to their talented front seven.
The 49ers, meanwhile, are still figuring out how to piece together a running game featuring second-year player Matt Breida and Alfred Morris, the veteran signed midway through training camp.
“We were going to do some different things with (McKinnon), which we have other guys on the roster who are capable of doing that stuff,” said Shanahan. “But, it’s just how much you want to do it, and things like that. That changes formations and everything. We definitely had to go back in and change some things, but definitely still excited about what we’ve got.”
The game represents one of the toughest challenges Jimmy Garoppolo has faced since becoming the team’s starting quarterback last December, particularly without McKinnon as a valuable check-down option and mismatch creator in the passing game.
“They’re talented across the board,” Garoppolo said of the Vikings. “Those guys have been playing together for a while, just about all of them. So, they’re comfortable in their scheme. They play to their strengths and try to expose your weaknesses. It’s going to be a chess match, really. Just a ‘who has the chalk last’ type of thing.”
Minnesota is a trendy pick to represent the NFC in this year’s Super Bowl after advancing to the conference title game against the Eagles last January. They added former Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is expected to provide an upgrade over journeyman Case Keenum.
Minnesota’s new billion-dollar home, U.S. Bank Stadium, is regarded as one of the NFL’s loudest venues for road teams since opening in 2016, similar to what the 49ers expect from their annual visits to Seattle. The noise factor is already something Garoppolo and his teammates are factoring into their preparation.
“You just work at it during practice,” said rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who will making his NFL debut. “Everybody knows when the crowd’s going to get loud, and it’s on third-and-long, it’s on third-and-short. Situational football. And I think you work it just as hard you work anything else. It’s a small detail, but it’s a big one when it comes down to the grand scheme of things.”
It might be especially important for McGlinchey, who will be tasked with preventing Minnesota’s top-flight defensive ends from getting after Garoppolo. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffin combined for 20 sacks last season, helping the Vikings finish 13-3 and claim their second division title in three seasons.
“It’s going to be a big challenge, but I have high expectations for McGlinchey,” Shanahan said. “That’s why we took him. That’s why we’re putting him in there. He’s been great since the day he’s come in. Whether it’s a rookie in his first game or whether it’s a 10-year vet, I mean, it’s going to be a challenge playing in that dome versus their personnel and the noise.
“I don’t expect him just to sit and dominate. I don’t expect anybody to. But, I’d be surprised if he didn’t play at a high level and I think he’ll give us a chance to win this game.”