The San Francisco 49ers know if they have a weakness on defense, it’s slowing the opponent’s run game. Heading into Saturday’s Divisional Round bout with the Minnesota Vikings, that flaw could get exploited by Dalvin Cook.
“Coming into this game, throughout the year, obviously against the run hasn’t been our strong suit throughout the year. I know they’re definitely going to challenge us in the run game early,” defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said, via the Associated Press. “Especially with Dalvin Cook back there, he’s one of the best in the league. We’ve just got to do a really good job with shutting that down early.”
Cook is healthy, dashing for 94 yards and 2 touchdowns in the wild-card win against the Saints, becoming the first Vikings player with 90-plus rush yards and two rushing scores in a playoff game since Adrian Peterson in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.
After ending the regular season banged up, having a healthy Cook makes the Vikings‘ offense potent. Cook owns the ability to churn out yards and move the chains between the tackles, but also possesses the capability of exploding for a big gain at any moment.
“I’ve been watching him since Florida State,” rookie defensive end Nick Bosa said. “He’s really good. Not many people could just maintain the speed that he maintains through contact. He just makes cuts and never slows down. He’s physical. They’ve got two of them, so it’s going to be a challenge. We’ve played some good backs, but we haven’t played him. We just got to bring it.”
The second back Bosa referred to is rookie Alexander Mattison, a Cook-like angry runner who can get to the edge and pick up chunk gains. Expect the two to see plenty of action Saturday afternoon.
Mike Zimmer wants to pound the ball. Against a 49ers defense that boasts the No. 1 pass D, led in the secondary by Richard Sherman and pass rushers that can harass the quarterback in Bosa, Buckner, Dee Ford, etc., running the rock hits at San Francisco’s biggest weakness.
The Niners’ run D gave up an average of 112.6 yards per game, ranking 17th in the NFL in 2019. Compare that to the run defense Cook exposed last week in New Orleans, which entered that game allowing just 91.3 rush yards per game, fourth in the league.
Cook is the engine that powers the Vikings‘ offense. And while teams don’t need to be running the ball well for play-action to be effective, for Minnesota, when Cook is gashing, it certainly opens things up for Kirk Cousins and the passing attack.
It’s a strength on weakness matchup between Cook and the Niners defense Saturday. Robert Saleh’s crew knows they must slow down the rush in order to slow the Vikings‘ attack.
“They run the football really well,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “Very effective at it. It’s going to be a grimy game for sure. … We know what they trying to do. It’s going to be grimy. We’re going to have to get after it.”