EAGAN, Minn. — It seems as there is always a weekly test for the Vikings defense as they navigate through the NFL schedule.
This week’s challenge? Trying to hand 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo his first-ever loss as a starter.
Garoppolo is 7-0 in games he has started, including the final five contests of 2017 with San Francisco after being traded to the 49ers from New England midway through last season.
Garoppolo’s play down the stretch impressed Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
“He took really good care of the ball,” Zimmer said. “I thought he was accurate with his throws, threw under duress well a couple times. And he moved in the pocket well.”
New England took Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the same year the Vikings took Teddy Bridgewater in the first round.
Zimmer said the Vikings looked intently at Garoppolo in the draft, adding that the quarterback has displayed many of the same traits he had in college at Eastern Illinois.
“A lot of similar things … good arm, guns it in in the seam, moves in the pocket, plays confidently and free,” Zimmer said.
Garoppolo threw for 1,542 yards with six touchdowns and five interceptions in five starts for the 49ers in 2017. He led a pair of game-winning drives over the final five weeks of the season.
Here are four other takeaways from Zimmer’s podium session Wednesday:
1. Back to normal
There is plenty of excitement and hoopla as the Vikings get set for the 2018 season.
But Zimmer wants to keep things as normal as possible while getting his players into a routine they can rely on for the next four months.
That includes preparation for the 49ers, which Zimmer said began this week.
"A few years ago we started prepping earlier than what we did this week and it didn’t turn out well, and I felt like we didn’t play very good,” Zimmer said. “We’re trying to stay as close to a normal week as possible.
“We had one extra day as opposed to – I talked to one coach, and they’ve been working on Sunday’s team for two weeks,” Zimmer added. “I’d rather get their attention right now, get them focused on what we’re trying to get accomplished, the plays that they have to do and go from there.”
The Vikings and 49ers last met in the 2015 season opener, which was a 20-3 loss for Minnesota.
2. Starting on special teams
The Vikings boast one of the deepest rosters in the NFL, with All-Pros on both sides of the ball and Pro Bowlers at each level of the defense.
And it’s a safe bet that most of those guys started out on special teams.
Zimmer said Wednesday that depth in the third phase of the game is crucial for a team’s success, rattling off key players that worked their way up from the bottom.
“A lot of our really good players started out with special teams,” Zimmer said. “You talk about [Andrew] Sendejo, you talk about [Adam] Thielen. [Stephen] Weatherly has been good on special teams.
“Heck, I wasn’t here but [Everson] Griffen was on the punt cover team. That is really important for these young guys. Typically, when they play really good in special teams as rookies, like [Ben] Gedeon for instance. He’s played really well on special teams,” Zimmer added. “They typically become good football players because they know how to find the ball, they know how to get off blocks. That part has been good.”
Young players who could contribute on special teams in 2018 include cornerback Mike Hughes, linebacker Eric Wilson, wide receiver Brandon Zylstra and cornerback Holton Hill.
3. Homefield advantage
Get ready to bring the noise.
The Vikings are 12-4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in the first two seasons of the stadium’s existence, thanks in part to a loud and raucous crowd that continually causes headaches for opposing offenses.
Zimmer said Wednesday that he is relying on Vikings fans to disrupt the 49ers offense on Sunday, even as the constant loud means silent signals for his own defense.
“I hope it’s loud, and I hope it affects them,” Zimmer said. “I think it makes it harder for the communication for them.
“Hopefully we get some false starts and things like that,” Zimmer added. “But it also makes communication hard for us, as well.”
4. Fullbacks full of versatility
Don’t sleep on the fullbacks in Sunday’s season opener.
The Vikings have a good one in C.J. Ham, who has proven his versatility in the preseason and also during the 2017 campaign.
And so do the 49ers. Kyle Juszczyk has been to two Pro Bowls after being a fourth-round pick in 2013.
Zimmer said that long gone are the days where fullbacks are solely blockers, and that having a competent one adds an extra dimension to the offense.
“I don’t know if there is a resurgence. Fullbacks are hard to find. If you don’t have one, it makes it more difficult,” Zimmer said. “[The 49ers] have a bunch of tight ends, and sometimes they use them as fullbacks and things like that.
“They obviously found a really good one who has been to two Pro Bowls now. I think he’s a good blocker, he’s a good receiver, he lines up all different places,” Zimmer said. “So the versatility for that spot, instead of just being a pound it up in there and run leads on linebackers, that’s the biggest thing.”