NFC West: 49ers-Vikings 092709

The leg-whipping of 49ers' Staley

September, 28, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

This was a violent, violent football game between the 49ers and Vikings in Week 3.

Left tackle Joe Staley wasn't sure afterward which Vikings player had leg-whipped him, resulting in a leg contusion that will require an MRI, but I've had a chance to go back and look at the replay. Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson was trying to tackle 49ers running back Glen Coffee when his legs flew around and whacked an unsuspecting Staley with 12:04 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The leg-whipping appeared unintentional. Henderson was blitzing on the play and already deep in the 49ers' backfield when Shaun Hill handed off to Coffee. Henderson was moving too quickly to reverse course, so he latched onto Coffee with both arms while the running back took off upfield. Henderson's lower body whipped around hard as Coffee accelerated in the opposite direction. Henderson's left foot hit Staley in the upper leg. The foot just as easily could have struck the player Staley was blocking, linebacker Chad Greenway, or even defensive tackle Letroy Guion, who was also nearby.

That was my take on it, anyway.

Staley was having a hard time moving after the injury, but he stayed in the game for the next play and did his best to block Jared Allen while Hill completed a pass over the middle to Vernon Davis. Barry Sims then replaced Staley for the remainder of the drive, marking the first offensive snaps Staley has missed since entering the NFL in 2007.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
San Francisco coach Mike Singletary wouldn't let his team get down after a heartbreaking loss to the Vikings.

MINNEAPOLIS -- The curtain separating reporters from the San Francisco 49ers' locker room Sunday was no match for coach Mike Singletary's impassioned rants.

"Stop looking at the floor!" he ordered players in an otherwise silent locker room. "We didn't steal anything, we didn't do anything wrong, OK? We're going to get better. We are going to get there."

The momentum was building.

"We will see them again -- in the playoffs!" Singletary continued. "All right?"
Week 3 Coverage
" Sando: Singletary stays positive
" Mosley: Did Zorn seal his fate?
" Seifert: GB's bread and butter
" Graham: Owens, Evans MIA
" Kuharsky: Fisher gets some blame
" Walker: Bengals are contenders
" Williamson: Broncos have special coach
" Chadiha: Vick's modest return
" Wojciechowski: Rocky seas for Sanchez
" Clayton: Favre has magic touch
" NFL Nation: Reactions | Wrap-ups | Live

Singletary remained out of view, but he commanded the room on both sides of the curtain. Reporters were rapt, players silent.

"You hold your head up!" he screamed. "You do not need to put your head down for nobody! You hold your head up! You understand? You hold your head up, your shoulders back and let's rock! OK? Let's go!"

The 49ers couldn't have dreamed a harder way to lose a game. Brett Favre's 32-yard strike to Greg Lewis in the back of the end zone with two seconds remaining turned a defining 49ers performance into heartbreak. But this defeat was not a total loss.

"You look at a game like today and it's a tough loss, but the team that lost this game, particularly like that, is going to be better for it," Singletary said during his postgame news conference. "It stings and it hurts like heck, but going forward, this will serve us well. We have to learn how to finish."

The 49ers have branded Singletary's five-point "formula for success" onto walls at their facility in Santa Clara, Calif. A quick look at each one shows the 49ers, despite nearly winning this game, have much work to do:

1. Total ball security. The 49ers came close. Shaun Hill threw one interception, but Glen Coffee protected the ball during 25 tough carries. The turnover battle was a push.

2. Execute. The 49ers fell short, failing to convert any of their 11 third-down opportunities before allowing Lewis to get free on the final play. Allowing a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown also hurt.

3. Dominate the trenches. Holding Adrian Peterson to 85 yards despite a 35-yard carry qualifies as a success. The 49ers averaged only 2.2 yards per carry, a number that doesn't seem so bad given that the Vikings knew what was coming. Coffee did have 12- and 13-yard runs in the third quarter when the 49ers needed to control the ball. The 49ers sacked Favre twice and roughed him up a few times. They did not dominate the trenches, but they weren't dominated either.

4. Create great field position. The 49ers were hit-and-miss on this front. They began drives at their own 14- and 8-yard lines early in the game. Their first second-half drive began at their own 16. The Vikings began one drive at the San Francisco 34.

5. Finish. Blaming the 49ers for failing to finish is seeing only part of the story. Favre made a Hall of Fame play when nothing less would suffice.

Give Favre credit, but not entirely at the 49ers' expense. They showed more in this game than anyone reasonably could have expected even three weeks ago:
  • Shaun Hill can win a game. Only a few days ago, Singletary sidestepped a question about whether the 49ers' quarterback could win games instead of simply managing them. The 49ers found their answer in the Metrodome. For the second time in as many road games, Hill led the go-ahead 80-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. His 20-yard scoring pass to tight end Vernon Davis on second-and-goal from the 20 should have stood as the defining play for San Francisco.
  • Hill is the 49ers' most important player. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye gave that distinction to Frank Gore before the season, but he might need to reconsider. The 49ers lost Gore to injury during their second possession. They lost left tackle Joe Staley for part of their go-ahead scoring drive in the fourth quarter (Staley said he was the victim of a leg-whipping by an unseen defender). Hill was the constant. He completed 60 percent of his passes for 195 yards and two touchdowns despite brutally difficult conditions for a quarterback. The team's failures on third down at least partially reflect conservative play calling on early downs. The 49ers were going to run the ball, period, even when the Vikings knew it was coming. Hill was good in the clutch.
  • The 49ers are physically tough. This game felt more like an NFC North or AFC North slugfest than anything associated with the NFC West in recent seasons. "They were going to run the ball and stop the run and try to hit you in the mouth, and they did a pretty good job of it," Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson said.
  • The 49ers are mentally tough. Gore's injury gave the 49ers and easy out. They would not take it. They weathered a rough start to take control of the game. Their 80-yard touchdown drive came after the 49ers allowed Percy Harvin's return touchdown. Few teams could overcome losing their workhorse running back and allowing a special-teams touchdown to win on the road. The 49ers nearly did.
  • Recent draft choices are looking good. Staley, a first-round choice in 2007, battled Vikings defensive end Jared Allen pretty evenly after allowing a sack on the first play. Coffee, a third-rounder this year, ran tough even when there wasn't much room. Davis, the sixth player chosen in the 2006 draft, caught seven passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns. He's functioning much better than previously now that the 49ers are leaving him on the field for entire games. He fits this offense. If only the team could have gotten Michael Crabtree signed in time to contribute this season.

The 49ers are not pretty. They are not going to suddenly become pretty. Their approach might not be good enough to win playoff games. But for all their obvious warts -- and none stands taller than that 0-for-11 mark on third down -- they were leading the Vikings in the Metrodome with three seconds remaining.

On that front, Singletary was right. The 49ers need not hang their heads for anybody. They're 2-1 heading into a home game against the 0-3 Rams.

"It's not the end of us," cornerback Dre Bly said. "We're going to fight back. We're a good football team."

Rapid Reaction: Vikings 27, 49ers 24

September, 27, 2009
Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 49ers forgot about the fifth item in Mike Singletary's formula for success: Finish.

Allowing Brett Favre's winning touchdown pass with 2 seconds remaining spoiled an otherwise outstanding and potentially defining performance by the 49ers.

The crushing nature of the defeat will test this team's resolve.

But after watching the 49ers take the Vikings' best punch and deliver a few of their own, there can be little doubt about this team's ability to bounce back.

Let there also be no more questioning the 49ers' credentials or whether Shaun Hill is the answer at quarterback. Hill again led the 49ers down the field 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers can build on this performance even though they lost. Vernon Davis enjoyed a breakout performance, Glen Coffee ran tough while protecting the ball and the team kept its composure despite a difficult start against a good team on the road.

The schedule gives the 49ers a bit of a break. They can improve to 3-1 by beating the 0-3 Rams at Candlestick Park in Week 4. They would be 3-0 in the division and still a favorite within the division. In the meantime, they've got some recovering to do. This one hurt, and if Frank Gore's injury is serious, the consequences could linger.

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 49ers are one of the toughest teams I can recall covering closely.

Shaun Hill has now taken them 80 yards for touchdowns in the fourth quarters of both road games, at Arizona and now at Minnesota.

The 24-20 lead with 8:12 remaining is remarkable. Left tackle Joe Staley left the game with a leg injury during that drive. Left guard David Baas is hurting. Frank Gore hasn't played since the 49ers' second possession.

This would be a defining victory for the 49ers. It's already a defining performance.

ESPN's Matthew Berry is looking pretty smart, too, after Vernon Davis caught that 20-yard touchdown pass.

Quick halftime thoughts on NFC West games

September, 27, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 49ers have shocked the Vikings by taking a 14-13 halftime lead on Nate Clements' return of a blocked field goal attempt.

The Rams have found new life with Kyle Boller at quarterback.

A few thoughts:
  • This 49ers-Vikings game has lived up to expectations as a tough, physical game featuring borderline dirty tactics. The 49ers have punished Brett Favre, whose toughness simply amazes. The hit Justin Smith put on Favre's knee looked like the sort of shot that knocks normal quarterbacks from games.
  • Marc Bulger took a pounding in Week 2 and he was already trying to play with a broken pinky finger. It was no surprise when the Packers knocked him from the game in the first half. Boller's success in relief gives the Rams a needed jump start. I do not know how long Bulger will be out after suffering a shoulder injury, but the better Boller plays, the longer Bulger probably gets to make sure he's feeling right.
  • The 49ers are one tough, resilient team. Losing Frank Gore early gave them an easy excuse. They could have played the injury card and lamented how they had lost the one guy they could least afford to lose. Instead, they fought back. There's a lot to like about this team and it's clear the 49ers will not underachieve with Mike Singletary as head coach.
  • Steven Jackson hasn't gotten much going for the Rams in the first half. That could change if Boller keeps making plays through the air.
Halftime in the Metrodome runs another 8 minutes. The 49ers have to be feeling very good about their current position.

49ers pass significant gut check early

September, 27, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- Shaun Hill's 5-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis after a 25-yard pass to Josh Morgan on fourth down has quieted the shrieking masses here in the Metrodome.

An assist from Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson, flagged for an illegal blow to the head against Hill, was consistent with Henderson's reputation among NFC West teams. Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck once accused Henderson of taking a cheap shot at his knee, a play that left Hasselbeck injured a few years ago.

The Vikings lead this game 10-7, but the 49ers have settled down. They have weathered the early storm, a significant step for them against a good team on the road.

Relief for 49ers: Coffee returns quickly

September, 27, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- Glen Coffee returned to the field quickly for the 49ers.

His injury wasn't an injury so much as a condition. He had the wind knocked out of him, the 49ers said.

With Frank Gore sidelined, the 49ers couldn't afford to lose Coffee as well. The fact that he's back in the game helps their ground game quite a bit.

Coffee hurt for 49ers

September, 27, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- So much for the 49ers' power running game.

Frank Gore left the Metrodome field on a cart. His replacement, Glen Coffee, just went down with an injury before limping off the field.

Michael Robinson and Moran Norris are the only other running backs.

Gore rides cart off field to locker room

September, 27, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 49ers will be without running back Frank Gore for the near future at least.

Gore just left the Metrodome playing area riding a motorized cart. The 49ers came out passing and gave the ball to Glen Coffee early. Gore carried for 4 yards on his only play.

An ankle injury limited Gore during the week.

Gore's value as a runner is obvious. His value as a pass protector should not be underestimated. The 49ers did draft Coffee in the third round, and he has looked good. But Gore's experience could be missed, particularly on passing downs.

Head scratcher: 49ers come out passing

September, 27, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 49ers' decision to come out passing against the Vikings made sense in an abstract way.

The Vikings were sure to load up against Frank Gore early. But I might have reconsidered the idea on the first drive given the incredible noise here in the Metrodome. Worse, the 49ers left Joe Staley alone to block Jared Allen, leading to a sack and forced fumble on their first play.

Bad, bad start for the 49ers on offense. They need to settle down and give their tackles a chance.

Pregame flavor from the Metrodome

September, 27, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Vikings would like a new stadium to replace the Metrodome.

The flavor here isn't so bad, though, particularly from the press box.

Former Vikings coach Jerry Burns is chatting up former referee Jerry Seeman and former Vikings tight end Stu Voigt directly over my left shoulder. There's no glass separating the press box from the rest of the stadium, so there's a good feel for the environment.

I can see a few dozen fans in 49ers jerseys behind the team's bench directly across the field. And there's a guy wearing a Jerry Rice jersey walking down to his seat directly below. I saw several conflicted couples before the game, one wearing 49ers stuff and the other wearing Vikings gear.

The teams have gone back into their locker rooms one final time before kickoff.

Jerome Boger is the referee for this game. I ran across him this morning and said hello, then went back through my records to see his history with the 49ers. He has worked one of their games, a 33-30 overtime victory over the Seahawks at Qwest Field last season. Nothing too eventful to that game from an officiating standpoint.

I'll be watching the punt-return units for these teams. Allen Rossum nearly had a 75-yard touchdown return against Seattle in Week 2 (a penalty negated the return). The Vikings have allowed a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown this season. They are allowing 19 yards per punt return (while averaging a healthy 18 yards on their own returns). Perhaps a big return will shape this game.

49ers WR Brandon Jones inactive again

September, 27, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

MINNEAPOLIS -- The 49ers and Vikings submitted their list of inactive players for their Week 3 game in the Metrodome.
No big surprises for the 49ers. They have four receivers active (Josh Morgan, Isaac Bruce, Arnaz Battle and Micheal Spurlock). Linebacker Ahmad Brooks is active, as coach Mike Singletary suggested the case would be.

Jones has returned to practice following a shoulder injury, but the 49ers did not find a spot for him on the 45-man roster. They have not used more than three wide receivers at a time through two games this season.

Posted by's Mike Sando fantasy guru Matthew Berry thinks 49ers tight end Vernon Davis could be a sleeper choice for Week 3 in deep fantasy leagues.

The 49ers so far haven't used Davis much in pass protection, allowing him to run more pass routes. They are leaving him on the field across more situations, a result of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye abandoning the four-receiver packages Mike Martz used last season.

Playing the Vikings in the Metrodome will put pressure on the 49ers' spotty pass protection. Can they still afford to release Davis into pass routes? Perhaps they will run the ball well enough to set up Davis for play-action opportunities. The Vikings' usually stout run defense hasn't been quite as good so far this season.

Sack differentials for NFC West teams

September, 26, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

Team Sacks Allowed Differential
Seahawks 7 1 +6
Cardinals 8 3 +5
Patriots 6 1 +5
Bengals 9 5 +4
Broncos 7 3 +4
Bears 6 3 +3
Eagles 7 4 +3
Falcons 5 2 +3
Ravens 5 2 +3
Giants 3 1 +2
Raiders 5 3 +2
Titans 4 2 +2
Bucs 3 2 +1
Colts 3 2 +1
Saints 3 2 +1
Jets 2 2 Even
Lions 3 3 Even
Vikings 7 7 Even
Cowboys 0 1 -1
Texans 1 2 -1
Chiefs 3 5 -2
2 4 -2
Bills 3 6 -3
Chargers 2 5 -3
Dolphins 3 6 -3
Rams 1 4 -3
49ers 4 8 -4
Jaguars 1 5 -4
Panthers 2 6 -4
Steelers 2 6 -4
Browns 4 9 -5
Packers 4 10 -6
I recall someone asking in the comments about a stat for sack differential.

ESPN Stats & Information tracks that stat among many others. I decided to publish the information after seeing NFC West teams ranking first (Seahawks) and tied for second (Cardinals).

The 49ers are on pace to allow 64 sacks this season, up from 55 last season. The scheme Mike Martz ran last season emphasized longer passes with slower-developing routes. Switching to a power-based offense has cut down on turnovers, but the team still isn't protecting the quarterback very well.

Five of the eight sacks allowed by the 49ers came on third down. The team needed between 9 and 20 yards for a first down on those plays. Those are tough situations for any offense. Most of the eight sacks involved the right side of the offensive line, but only two came during the second halves of games and none was in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers have not asked tight end Vernon Davis to help in pass protection nearly as much this season. I asked Davis about this Monday, specifically whether he thought the 49ers would ask him to help in protection against the Vikings' Jared Allen and friends.

"We have different types of protections that we are going to put in which allows me to get out into the route because of our quick game, our hots (hot reads against blitzes)," Davis said.

The Seahawks, Patriots, Giants and Cowboys are the only teams to have allowed fewer than two sacks. Such a low number seems remarkable for Seattle given all the changes on the offensive line. It also reveals the weakness of the Rams' pass rush, which failed to sack Matt Hasselbeck in Week 1.

Good quarterbacks can minimize sacks by getting rid of the ball quickly. I'm a little surprised to see the Vikings allowing seven sacks through two games. A veteran quarterback such as Brett Favre should be able to get rid of the ball. Favre took only 15 sacks in 2007 and 12 in 2004. The Packers used quarterback movement and quick throws to protect him.

Video: Picking the 49ers to beat Vikings

September, 25, 2009

Posted by's Mike Sando

The Rams weren't particularly happy with ESPN's Mark Schlereth this week, but the 49ers hope the former offensive lineman is right in Week 3.

Schlereth is taking the 49ers to beat the Vikings in Minnesota.

In another ESPN video, Trent Dilfer explains what he thinks needs to be the 49ers' top priority for this game.