EAGAN, Minn. — One of the best defenses in the NFL is headed to Minnesota to face the Vikings on Monday Night Football.
For years, the 49ers have consistently featured an attacking defensive unit filled with premier talent and a sound scheme. So much so that the 49ers past two defensive coordinators have been hired to roles as head coaches. Robert Saleh (2017-2020) is in his third season as the Jets head coach. DeMeco Ryans (2021-22) was named the Houston Texans head coach in January.
Defensive Coordinator Steve Wilks could be next. Wilks, a former NFL head coach for the Arizona Cardinals and an interim head coach for the Carolina Panthers last season, picked up right where Saleh and Ryans left off. The 49ers defense is first in points allowed per game (14.5) and ranks fourth in defensive efficiency and third in expected points added, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell is familiar with the 49ers defense. He faced the 49ers five times in two seasons as the Rams offensive coordinator, including a 20-17 NFC Championship victory en route to Super Bowl LVI.
"They have impact players that you have to account for in multiple areas of their defense. Then, they play their scheme really, really well. They are not going to do 1,000 different things, because they are pretty darn successful with what they do," O'Connell said. "The effort, the finish, the physicality, they hang their hat on those things, and you have to try and max that as an offensive football team against them."
Minnesota has won six consecutive home matchups against San Francisco, a streak that began in 1994 and extended in the 2018 season opener, which was Kirk Cousins' first start with the Vikings.
Matchup to Watch: Brock Purdy versus the Vikings defense
Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium will be the first time the 49ers will see how quarterback Brock Purdy plays following a regular-season loss.
Before last week's 19-17 loss at the Browns, Purdy was 10-0 in regular season starts. The Browns played man coverage on 71 percent of their defensive snaps to beat Purdy, and Cleveland deployed single-high safety coverage on 28 of 55 defensive snaps, according to Next Gen Stats, to stop the run.
That combination – plus Pro Bowlers Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel not playing in the second half due to injury – hindered the 49ers offense. Purdy finished Sunday with several lows as a starter: passing yards (125), completion percentage (44.4 percent) and yards per attempt (4.6).
View photos from the Vikings practice on Oct. 19 at the TCO Performance Center.
Data suggests how Purdy plays will depend on his allotment of weapons. The Giants implemented a blitz-happy game plan against Purdy in Week 3, sending extra rushers on 33 of his 39 dropbacks. Yet he gashed New York for 310 passing yards and two touchdowns in a 30-12 win.
In that win, McCaffrey gained 119 total yards and one touchdown. Samuel had a season-high 129 receiving yards on six catches and one score. Both present matchup problems, but McCaffrey fully unlocks the 49ers offense.
Samuel was ruled out but McCaffrey was listed as questionable on the final injury report.
Since McCaffrey joined the 49ers via trade one year ago Friday, San Franciso has faced the second-highest rate of man coverage (48 percent). That number was just under 39 percent before McCaffrey. Defenses have tried to avoid McCaffrey settling into soft zone coverages and creating yards after the catch.
Last week, the 49ers scored 10 points, with McCaffrey playing his usual role. He scored a 13-yard touchdown catch on the opening drive. But McCaffrey played four snaps after halftime, and San Francisco scored seven points after the break.
For that reason, and especially if McCaffrey plays through an ailing oblique injury, Minnesota is anticipating a Purdy-led 49ers offense to be at its best.
Cousins was asked about what Purdy has done well so far.
"You've got to be a good decision-maker. You've gotta be accurate with the football. You've gotta have great command," Cousins said. "You've gotta be able to manage the game well. And forget all the other things you do and all the abilities you have, if you don't do those things – accuracy, game managing, great decision making, great command – the other traits don't really matter as much. So I think anybody who plays well, including Brock, is really doing a good job of those initial traits."
O'Connell spoke to beat writers Saturday and told them that defensive line coach Chris Rumph has requested a personal leave of absence.
"Just out of privacy for him and everything, I want to keep you guys posted and informed, but at the same time, out of ultra respect for him, I love Chris Rumph," O'Connell said. "He's one of those guys, one of the first coaches I hired here, and what his impact is in our building and my relationship with him kind of means the world to me.
"I can't get into specifics or a timeline of his return, but I want you guys to know he is indeed on a personal leave. He will not be available on Monday," O'Connell added. "Pat Hill, assistant defensive line coach will assume some of those roles, and then [Assistant Head Coach] Mike Pettine has been phenomenal within the defensive staff and will continue to do so. We'll have him as kind of a part of that process throughout the weekend, on game day, as well.
Rumph is the second Vikings coach who is on personal leave right now, joining outside linebackers coach Mike Smith. Both were hired by O'Connell in 2022. O'Connell emphasized valuing the privacy of the coaches but did say Smith is doing well.
Six Points: Memorable Week 7 Quotes
TE T.J. Hockenson on impact of George Kittle on his college and NFL career:
"George was a big part of my career at Iowa. He was a senior when I was a freshman and just kind of taught me the ropes. I was able to learn from him and then a lot of the different guys there. … To be able to be there when I was a freshman, and I redshirted, so I really just watched him and watched what he was able to do on the field. And then when he got to the league, I was only two years behind him, so that was kind of wild. I'm [in] Year 5, and I think he's in Year 7. So with us being four years apart in college, I was able to move down to Nashville after my rookie year and train with those guys. There's a bunch of tight ends now that are in Nashville, and we've kind of made it just our home. … We just keep rolling and just keep growing together. Every year we try to get better, so there's really not an offseason."
Cousins on his time with 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan in Washington:
"He was a big reason I got drafted there, I think, and I was fortunate enough to get to work with him for two years. Mike Shanahan, the head coach when I was drafted [by Washington], has really been a mentor for me and somebody I've always gone to for wisdom and counsel, and the same for Kyle and Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay and a lot of those guys, Mike McDaniel, that I had a lot of respect for and enjoyed working with, and it was a positive two years for me kind of learning the league. We've all kind of followed each other ever since then."
Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores on D.J. Wonnum & others who will be called on in Marcus Davenport's absence:
"He's an extremely hard worker. Football's important to him. He's very smart, has learned multiple positions, does a good job setting the edge, does a lot of things that help his teammates. So he's been kind of the unsung hero on a lot of plays this year, and in some instances he's been the one who's made the play. He's done a great job. That entire room's played solid for us. Pat Jones is in this category of 'making a play without making a play.' … Collectively as a group and as a whole defense, losing Marcus is a big loss, but we'll need to just collectively pick up the slack in all areas – players, coaches – and the guys in that room, we expect them to step up in his absence."
Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips on anticipation of Cam Akers' role moving forward:
"I think each game's a little bit different as to how it plays out … how many different situations you're gonna be in, how much tempo you're using, what those plays are, all those types of things. But I do see Cam continuing to get carries and get touches and get more involved."
O'Connell on CB Andrew Booth, Jr.'s development:
"He has done a really nice job. I thought getting him in there a little bit with what he has been doing in practice, it comes back to that 'development' word. The timeline for all the players that you bring in, especially the draft picks, is not going to be the same. It is not going to be everyone is required to be at certain points of their progression at the same time. Andrew has done a phenomenal job. He has really been one of our better special teams players all year long. Then, he has always been a really good tackler. He is always around the ball. He continues to work his technique and fundamentals in coverage. His fit in this defense, pairing him with Akayleb [Evans], Byron [Murphy Jr.] and Mekhi [Blackmon], and that group gives us some versatility at that corner position. I was really proud to see him get in there [at Chicago] and making an impact like he did."
Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels on Greg Joseph's season & success at Chicago:
"You look at the day that 'G' had, and it was a great day overall. All week, we talked about executing in the elements, and he didn't allow [crosswinds to affect him]. … With him being in the division now for three years, he's got a good idea of how he wants to play it. He had a great pregame warmup, and it just kind of carried over into the game. He hasn't been getting very many opportunities in the games, but his practice reps, how he goes about it, have been true and through. It's showing up on game day."
Look back at photos over the course of time featuring games between the Vikings and the 49ers.
Danielle Hunter has recorded at least one sack in five of six games this season, boosting his career total to 79 sacks, matching the number of games he's started (he's played in 108). Hunter needs 1.0 more sack to pass Everson Griffen for seventh in franchise history (rankings include Vikings Legends who played before sacks becoming an official stat in 1982).
Hockenson has recorded 96 catches through his first 16 regular-season games with Minnesota. He is on pace to become the fastest tight end to 100 receptions with a team, needing just four receptions in the next three games to break the record of 20 games held by six players.
"Fan-ally" Friday (Saturday edition)
We'll still have the regularly scheduled Mailbag on Monday before the game, but I wanted to go ahead and continue including a few fans' thoughts in this segment.
Note: The first email was sent in Spanish, which I don't speak or know, so I relied on an online translation that is posted below. I welcome the comments in Spanish or other languages and will continue to try to include and assure accuracy in translation. — Craig
Mucha alaraca de ganarle a uno de los peores equipos de la liga ya veremos si siguen tan contentos la proxima semana. Son una verguenza en todos los aspectos desde su gerente que no tiene ni una vision al futuro a destrozado a un ya de por si mediocre equipo para convertirlo en un pesimo equipo
A lot of bragging about beating one of the worst teams in the league. We'll see if they're still so happy next week. They are an embarrassment in every aspect, from their manager who has no vision for the future to tearing apart an already mediocre team into a lousy team.
— Hector Jose Hernandez Azua
So far, the Vikings (2-4) strength of victory is not so hot, as the Panthers (0-6) and Bears (1-5) have combined for just one win. That might come into play way down the line if a tiebreaker on that metric occurs for a playoff spot or draft pick, but there's a lot of football ahead.
Minnesota's been an underdog to teams before, including going to San Francisco in 2021, and played the 49ers tough on the road but didn't land the upset. Bottom line, even if an upset happens Monday, it will only count one victory and the Vikings will need to continue climbing out of the hole they dug for themselves with turnovers and other mistakes.
I wouldn't categorize the 2023 Vikings as a "lousy" team, but the group has had a hand in some lousy results heavily impacted by bad ball security.
There's still plenty of talent and time for Minnesota to turn this season around and finish with a record that was more in line with the preseason expectations the team established.
Thanks for your weekly mailbag, much appreciated. My question is simple, how short of a leash do [O'Connell] and [Kwesi Adofo-Mensah] have? Fans in general are getting tired of the same ole song and dance. We are frustrated, and we expect more. I realize they inherited a messy situation, but it seems they don't have the experience to make the best out of it. This team I feel is cursed, and there's no end in sight.
— Cory from Green Bay, Wisconsin
I sincerely appreciate everyone reading and sending in their thoughts.
Really interesting timing for this one since the 49ers are heading this way. Beyond O'Connell and Adofo-Mensah overlapping briefly there, let's remember that Niners General Manager John Lynch and Shanahan were hired in 2017.
San Francisco went 6-10 and then 4-12 in their first two seasons. I'm sure there were people in their fan base calling for their jobs after a 10-22 showing in their first two years together.
The 2019 squad, however, went 13-3 and advanced to Super Bowl LIV. The next year, the team went 6-10. Instead of chalking up 2019 as an outlier, the leadership of the Niners was patient with Lynch and Shanahan. The team has been to the past two NFC Championships.
The "O'Connell and Adofo-Mensah" Vikings are 15-8 with a playoff appearance (albeit a disappointing postseason loss) so far.
Has Kwesi already captured the title as worst GM in Vikings history?
I know it usually takes a couple of years to judge a draft, but when NO ONE is making an impact from last year's draft and only [Jordan] Addison from this year's, that's terrible!!
We had the 12th pick and could have picked an impact player and replacement for The Hitman (Harrison Smith) in Kyle Hamilton, but nooooo, we traded down, gave the Lions a receiver (Jameson Williams) who had a touchdown this week, and we got NOTHING!!!!!
We let Dalvin [Cook] and [Za'Darius Smith] walk and sign [Marcus] Davenport, and he can't get on the field.
The O-line has needed an upgrade and that hasn't happened.
Most importantly, he didn't get J.J. signed, and we could lose him.
With the Lions ascending, the Bears probably getting the top pick and another in the top 5, we have two empty drafts, we can look forward to not winning the division for years!!!
The metrics for assessing a general manager can include but should go beyond quick draft results. If a team is picking mid to late in most rounds, that probably extends the timeline for what is expected and when.
Metrics also should include free agents acquired, with the nuance of a team's salary cap situation. Adofo-Mensah didn't have much to work with in that regard, but signing Jordan Hicks last year seems to have worked out well.
The trade down in 2022 with Detroit continues to be mentioned by emailers, but if the Vikings rated Hamilton higher than Lewis Cine and had taken him at that point, would people want Hamilton to play instead of Smith? Cine suffered an unfortunate injury. It's way early in his career, and the Vikings have changed defensive systems since selecting him.
Jefferson is under contract on the fifth-year option next year and he earned performance escalators for the amount he'll receive that year. The Vikings also could utilize the franchise tag after that if they needed to, but the dialogue with Jefferson will remain ongoing.
Za'Darius Smith didn't want to be here after his first season, so the Vikings made a trade. They also brought in Davenport, who has shown impact but landed on Injured Reserve this week.
External entities like Pro Football Focus and ESPN have produced numbers and indicators that the Vikings offensive line is trending up, and that's even with the group already dealing with injuries to Christian Darrisaw, Garrett Bradbury, and now, Ezra Cleveland.
People can credit the Lions for the success they've had to start the year, but Detroit last won a division title in 1993 and went from 2018-21 without more than six wins in any of those four seasons. Their success in 2023 isn't an overnight occurrence.
View exclusive black-and-white photos from the Week 6 game vs. the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field
Can we please start using [Ty] Chandler and [Cam] Akers more? [Alexander] Mattison isn't the answer. Like him in certain situations but c'mon man, quit trying to make him look better than he is. Play calling is atrocious. Third-and-1? Might as well surprise opponents and punt. (Sarcasm.) I was actually starting to believe in Cousins, but without Jefferson, he turns into Mr. Checkdown. The guy has 0 capability of extending a play. Was hoping for complete rebuild with new coach and GM. I think fans would sacrifice a bad year or two rather than watch this mediocrity year after year. That said, I'm loving the aggressive defense.
Been a fan since 61 and still waiting!
— Timothy Moch in Chaska, Minnesota
I didn't address the Cook departure that Bryan referenced because this one was next in the cue.
So far, it can be argued the Vikings haven't replaced the production that Cook provided, particularly with regard to a game-breaking plays like his long ones at Miami and Buffalo or the screen pass he turned into a touchdown against the Colts.
Three huge wins involved three gargantuan plays from the running back position. Minnesota has been a bit better about staying on schedule and avoiding negative runs, but the Vikings don't have a 20-yard rush or a rushing touchdown through six games.
O'Connell was asked Friday about the potential of Akers having more carries/touches.
"The potential for it is absolutely there. We'll look at it from the standpoint of making sure we give all those guys a chance to get in the rhythm of the game," O'Connell said. "I've really liked what Cam has done since he got here. He's got a really nice combination in my mind of, he sees it, he can kind of get the run in the right spots, and then even last week, didn't have a lot of opportunity.
"Both plays where he touched the ball, either broke a tackle and added some hidden yards on the play, or found a nice little spot there on the run," O'Connell added. "We've just got to make sure all ball carriers, receivers, running backs, tight ends, ball security is a premium against a physical team like this, and it continues to be a major point of emphasis for us."
O'Connell was asked about getting Nwangwu back and whether he'd be involved at running back or focus on kickoff return duties that Chandler has handled in Nwangwu's absence.
"Potentially, depending on how the reps shake out, we've talked about having a plan for that group and really that group as a whole," O'Connell said. "Knowing we get some value out of C.J. [Ham] on some of those known passing downs, we really feel lucky to have that kind of group that we can pour into those guys, and Ty [Chandler] has still done some really good things, hasn't quite gotten the opportunities as of late, but our confidence in that group is still sky high, and we'll figure out if we're putting individual guys in for plays, or if it's more a rhythm-of-the-game type of thing, but we'll see that as well. It will be nice — Kene looks outstanding — to get that kind of an explosive athleticism back anywhere on your field, whether it is in the kicking game, the return game, gunner, whatever it is and then infusing him back into your offense, as well, is a real positive."