It appeared the Minnesota Vikings might run away from the 49ers after going up 24-6 in the third quarter of Sunday’s season opener. But the defense tightened up in the second half, keeping San Francisco in the game and in range of an improbable victory.
The 49ers defense allowed just 17 points. After halftime, Minnesota punted on five of six possessions and quarterback Kirk Cousins didn’t look nearly as comfortable under center as he did in the first 30 minutes of his Vikings debut. San Francisco fell 24-16 while losing the turnover battle 4-1.
“We had our moments,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “There were a few plays that we would like to have back, obviously. ... I think we took too long to get comfortable out there.”
The defense nearly came up with a stop late in the fourth quarter to give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a chance at tying the game late. But on fourth-and-1 with 2:54 remaining, second-year defensive lineman Solomon Thomas jumped offside on a hard count, effectively ending the 49ers’ chance at a comeback.
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Coach Kyle Shanahan was asked if he anything to say to Thomas about the mishap afterward.
“I can sit there and yell as loud as I want at him,” he said. “But I think he knows. I think everyone in the world knows that.”
Cousins in the second half completed just 6 of 16 throws for 79 yards, when Minnesota managed just seven first downs after getting 12 before the break.
But safety Jaquiski Tartt and linebacker Fred Warner missed chances at interceptions — and the defense couldn’t overcome mistakes on the other side of the ball. Garoppolo threw three picks and running back Alfred Morris fumbled at the goal line in the second quarter. It swayed things back in the home team’s favor after San Francisco wasted a chance to tie it at 10.
It was Sherman’s first game with the 49ers after tearing an Achilles in November while with the Seattle Seahawks. He said he came out of the game feeling “fine” after missing time in training camp and the preseason with a hamstring injury. He was the strong point of the secondary, logging a pass breakup and a fumble recovery, though he got burned by receiver Adam Thielen for an 18-yard catch in the first quarter.
“It’s a mental game just as much as it’s a physical game,” Sherman said. “And the concepts they were running were relatively simple. I put myself in a position to be successful. A lot of times I took my risks here and there where I had the opportunity to figure the plays out.”
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who has vowed to improve on last season’s three-sack total, logged 2 1/2 Sunday, the most in a single game for a 49er since Aldon Smith had 5 1/2 against the Pittsburgh Steelers in November 2012.
“From what I saw, I thought our pass rush was good,” Shanahan said. “Holding that team to 17 points (on offense), I thought would have been good enough for us to win. I thought we could have tackled a bit better from what I saw, but I thought they played good enough to win.”
Warner had a game-high 12 tackles. He called in the huddle as the “Mike” linebacker and forced a crucial fumble from running back Dalvin Cook in scoring territory.
“Fred did an amazing job today,” Buckner said. “He really communicated well with everybody.”
Injuries loom large — The 49ers on Sunday lost their top two right guards to foot injuries, which proved to be pivotal in the outcome.
Mike Person left in the first half and Joshua Garnett was carted off the field early in the third quarter. With no more available guards on the active 46-man roster, San Francisco was forced to move No. 9 overall pick Mike McGlinchey to right guard and play Garry Gilliam at right tackle. The Vikings wound up blitzing from that side and pressuring Garoppolo on his third-quarter pick six to rookie Mike Hughes.
Gilliam and McGlinchey, playing guard for the first time after working exclusively at tackle during training camp, had a miscommunication along the line that played a role in the interception.
“That was our first lineup change right there, so the protections got messed up,” Shanahan said. “... Jimmy got surprised and had to get rid of it and we had a miscommunication on the route.”
Et cetera — The 49ers had a near 50-50 split at running back between Morris and second-year player Matt Breida in place of Jerick McKinnon. Morris logged 39 yards on his first five carries, but he lost one yard on his following seven carries. Breida finished with 11 carries for 46 yards.
▪ Receiver Marquise Goodwin left the game in the first half with a quad contusion but wound up returning in the third quarter. Goodwin was unable to run at his typical speed, Shanahan said, and was removed again for good. Goodwin was held without a catch.
▪ Linebacker Brock Coyle left the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion.