EAGAN, Minn. — Mike Zimmer and Kyle Shanahan will have the same objective Sunday as their teams open the 2018 season against each other at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But that might be where the similarities end for the two head coaches.
Zimmer is the gruff, 62-year-old veteran who has been in the NFL for more than two decades and has made his name as a defensive mastermind. Minnesota’s defense finished first in the NFL in yards allowed per game (275.9) and points allowed per game (15.8) this past season.
Shanahan is in his second year as a head coach at age 38, the same age Zimmer was when he received his first assistant coaching gig in the NFL. The 49ers head coach is known as an offensive whiz kid, as he helped San Francisco average more than 32 points per game in the final quarter of the 2017 season when equipped with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
But the respect factor is certainly there between Zimmer and a coach who is young enough to be his son.
“I think Kyle Shanahan does a great job at play calling and scheming and getting the guys in a lot of different spots,” Zimmer said earlier this week.
Zimmer pointed to how the 49ers, after starting the season 1-10, kept playing hard and won their final five games in 2017.
“Shanahan has done a really nice job of implementing the offense and then get better throughout the course of the season,” Zimmer said. “They probably implemented the defense. They’ve gotten better throughout the season. Now they’ve got carryover for this year.”
Shanahan was actually born in Minnesota as his father Mike, a Super Bowl-winning head coach with Denver, was the Gophers offensive coordinator in 1979.
Shanahan, who was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator when the Falcons played in Super Bowl LI, said there is a league-wide respect for Zimmer.
“I think there’s a ton. Any time you’ve gone against people a number of times – sometimes when they have great personnel, sometimes when they have average or below,” Shanahan said. “I’ve just played him at a number of places over the years and those coordinators that you see go to different spots but continue to always have the same identity, continue to be very sound, it’s very hard to mess them up.
“They always play hard. That’s why they’re always ranked pretty good. When that guy has good players, you know he’s going to be up there in the top 5,” Shanahan said. “So I’ve got a lot of respect for him and it’s been that way for a while.”
Zimmer may be the last of his kind, as some teams have started to focus on finding young offensive minds to lead their organizations.
Yet as the Vikings and 49ers meet Sunday in the season opener, it will be old against new trying to get to 1-0 on the young season.
Getting off the field
Nobody was better than the Vikings defense on third down in 2017 as Minnesota held its opponents to a third-down percentage of just 25.2.
You can bet that will be on Shanahan’s mind Sunday when the 49ers are facing a get-a-first-down-or-punt situation.
“I think one of the best things is to do better on first and second downs, so you can avoid those third downs,” Shanahan said. “Because anytime you get one-dimensional against a very talented team that is coached extremely well and guys who have played together for so long … that’s tough and that’s why they’ve been the best in the league for a while at it.
“I know we’re going to have some third downs, and we’re going to have to make some plays, and I know they will to,” Shanahan added. “The key is when they make their plays, you don’t turn it over and hopefully we can be very efficient on first and second down, so we don’t have a ton of them and when we do have them, they’re manageable.”
Naturally, Zimmer said his goal was to get his defense off the field no matter what the distance on third down.
“Trying to get them into third-and-long is great,” Zimmer said. “I think then if you look at the statistics of the team that are really good on third-and-1, which last year I felt like we were pretty good.
“Being able to defend the percentage from [third-and-] 2-to-4 and 5-to-7 and things like that go up quite a bit. You have to be really good at 6 and lower categories typically, and hopefully you’re decent in the longer yardage ones,” Zimmer added. “We spent a lot of time at it. We have some good cover guys, we have some good rushers. I think that all plays a part of it.”
San Francisco converted 35 of 60 third-down tries (58.3 percent) in the final five games that Garoppolo started in 2017.
Murray: A little bit of nerves are normal
There’s a difference between nerves and nervousness.
Latavius Murray, who is preparing for his sixth NFL season, said a little dose of the first is still normal.
Murray, however, also said he’s feeling more confident than a year ago when he was still coming back from injury.
“Looking at a year ago, where I was at and then where I am now personally, I’m a lot more confident in myself and what I am able to do, what I can provide for this team,” Murray said. “I’ll leave it at that. I’m way more confident in what I’m able to do and how I can help. That feels much better this time around, compared to last year.”
As for the Week 1 challenge that awaits, Murray said San Francisco’s front is “obviously stout.”
“They have some guys that can really get to the ball,” Murray said. “Their linebackers are some athletes, and obviously their DBs with Richard [Sherman] and their safeties will fill the box and are physical and make tackles.”
The final injury reports for both teams can be found here.