Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter sacked New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees forcing a fumble in the fourth quarter. Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune
Last week, I thought Dalvin Cook’s performance and health, and Danielle Hunter’s ability to get to Drew Brees, would be the keys to the game. Along with the performance of Kirk Cousins, which is almost always key.
Cook and Hunter were exceptional, and the Vikings won.
Today, I think the key matchup might be the Vikings’ secondary vs. 49ers tight end George Kittle. The Vikings are weak at cornerback and depleted by injuries in the secondary, but those who remain are capable of excellent coverage against tight ends. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are good cover linebackers (Kendricks might rate as great in this category) and Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris form one of the best safety duos in the game.
But Kittle is faster than any of them. So the key to covering him will lie in Football 101: Yes, the secondary needs to limit his yards, but it’s on the pass rush to limit Jimmy Garoppolo’s time in the pocket. If Garoppolo is given time, Kittle will eventually get open. He’s extremely fast and runs exceptional and deceptive routes.
Playing six days after an overtime victory in New Orleans, the freshness of the Vikings’ legs will be key. One of the reasons they lost, 38-7, at Philadelphia two years ago was that their defense was worn down.
So along with Hunter and Everson Griffen, Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo may have to hassle Jimmy G.
Turnovers are always important, but may be particularly so today. Before playing the Vikings, the Saints had turned the ball over just eight times this season. The Vikings forced two turnovers. The 49ers have committed 23 turnovers this season.
Late in the season, the Vikings emphasized, or at least excelled at, forcing fumbles. You’ve seen Hunter and Barr, among others, hammering at the ball.
If the Vikings win today, I think Danielle Hunter will play a major role, and the quiet man from Jamaica will have a national reputation to match his statistical excellence.