Here are five things to watch on Sunday when the 49ers open their season in Minnesota against the Vikings.
New-look running game
Kyle Shanahan indicated this week he had to dramatically change the game plan for Sunday after losing starting running back Jerick McKinnon, a former Viking, for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee. Shanahan hasn’t revealed how he’ll piece together the running game. But all signs are pointing to mixing and matching with second-year player Matt Breida and veteran Alfred Morris, who was signed midway through training camp.
Neither are adept pass catchers out of the backfield like McKinnon, which might force the 49ers to replicate some of McKinnon’s attributes with other skill position players. That could mean utilizing slot receiver Trent Taylor a little bit more than anticipated on short-yardage plays as a substitute for the running game. Minnesota’s defense ranked first in both yardage and scoring last season, and added Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in March.
Early test for new linebackers
It appears veteran Malcolm Smith’s regular-season debut with San Francisco is on pause yet again. He was limited by a hamstring injury in practice all week, paving the way for rookie third-round pick Fred Warner and veteran Brock Coyle to start in the middle of San Francisco’s defense. Reuben Foster, of course, is serving a two-game suspension, meaning the 49ers will likely be starting linebackers Nos. 3 and 4 on their depth chart.
But Warner was considered an eventual starter when drafted and might have won the job over Smith regardless of health. Warner made a strong impression to the coaching staff since his arrival.
“On tape, he seemed like a very smart player,” Shanahan said. “We met him at the combine, brought him in here and just the way he handled himself, it was pretty obvious that he was a very poised person. Since he’s gotten here, nothing has been too big for him.”
Garoppolo vs. NFL’s best defense from 2017
Week 1 has a tendency to be strange because everything is new. That could benefit the 49ers, who will try to force Minnesota’s talented defense to adjust on the fly after San Francisco devised a game plan months in the making this offseason. But the Vikings might be more equipped to handle those nuances than anyone, particularly on their home field. They have Super Bowl aspirations after their 13-3 record in 2017 and appearance in the conference title game.
“They’re talented across the board,” Garoppolo said. “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.”
Calling plays for Minnesota’s defense will be Mike Zimmer, who’s widely regarded as the one of the best defensive coaches in the league.
“He’s a real good coordinator,” Shanahan said. “There’s just not that many secrets to it. You’ve got to play very well versus these guys. You’ve got to execute. I talked about their talent and their scheme. Any time you play against a group that’s played together that long, 11 guys recognize plays very fast. They tee off on people very fast because 11 guys can think very similar. That’s, to me, the biggest challenge.”
49ers’ young secondary vs. elite receiving duo
Some questions facing San Francisco lie in the secondary. Can 30-year-old Richard Sherman recapture his All-Pro form following his Achilles tear? Will Ahkello Witherspoon withstand getting targeted with regularity? How will former seventh-round pick Adrian Colbert back up his strong rookie campaign?
In facing the Vikings, the new-look group of defensive backs are being thrown to the fire against quarterback Kirk Cousins and top receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Theilen, who combined for 155 receptions, 2,125 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.
“(Diggs) is a good route runner. He’s very detailed in regards to his depths and how he manipulates the route,” Sherman said. “Theilen, same way. Great hands, very deliberate route runner. Reliable, consistent. Those are things they’ve always done well in Minnesota. They have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, so (I) look forward to the challenge.”
Can San Francisco take advantage of Vikings offensive line?
Minnesota’s roster is regarded as one of the best in football. But its Achilles’ heel might be along the interior of the offensive line, where starting center Pat Elflein will be out after missing the entire offseason due to shoulder and ankle injuries. That came after starting left guard, and one-time 49er, Nick Easton underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck causing him to miss the season. The Vikings Aug. 26 traded for Giants center Brett Jones for a late-round 2019 draft pick.
Those absences could be good news for the 49ers, whose obvious strength on defense is the interior of the line with recent first-round picks DeForest Buckner, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead champing at the bit for breakout seasons.
“I know (coordinator Robert) Saleh’s trying to make everything possible for us D-line to succeed, especially in the pass rush aspect,” Buckner said, “searching for mismatches along the D-line, whether it’s me or any other guys up front. They really emphasizing rushing the passer and everything this whole offseason. As a D-line, we knew we had to step up as a group and I feel like everybody’s been able to meet that challenge.”