How the 49ers Shut Down the Vikings Running Game

The Vikings were a completely different offense when they couldn’t run the ball this season. Entering Saturday’s matchup with the 49ers, they were 1-4 when failing to rush for 100 yards. The 49ers clearly set out to stop this aspect of Minnesota’s offense, knowing that if they could do so successfully, they could control this side of the ball.

The staple of the Vikings running game is their outside-zone. The purpose of this play is to get the defense to flow and over-pursue, getting defenders out of their gaps and creating big running lanes.

To stop the outside zone, it’s important that the defense sets the edge, forcing the running back inside, and that the defensive line gets upfield and penetrates. This enables the linebackers to more easily stay in their gaps and get downhill. This is exactly what the 49ers were able to accomplish on Saturday. The first play of the game set the tone:

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Not many running lanes for Cook to choose from there.

Below, you an see another example of how the 49ers were able to control the Vikings’ outside-zone running game, which had a lead-toss element to it on this particular play. Watch defensive end Dee Ford (#55) set the edge on the left and defensive tackle Sheldon Day (#96) penetrate into the backfield.

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Running back Dalvin Cook was forced to cut back because he had to, not because there was a huge cut-back lane with big-play potential. Also notice how right guard Josh Kline (#64) was not able to get to the second level, keeping linebacker Dre Greenlaw (#57) clean to make the play. The backside pursuit here was fantastic as well.

On this next run later in the game, keep your eyes on Sheldon Day (#96) again.

Sheldon Day
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

He ruined this play by driving right guard Josh Kline (#64) into the backfield. Cook was again forced to cut back when he didn’t want to, and the rest of the defense didn’t have to worry about flow to the outside and the potential of creating large running lanes.

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You’ll notice that five unblocked defenders were waiting for Cook after he cut it back.

The Vikings all but abandoned their running game on Saturday. They did so for good reason, though – it wasn’t working. They finished the day with just 10 rushes for a season-low 21 yards.

In the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers will face a Packers Offense that has a very similar and effective running game. The Packers will have to execute better up front than Minnesota did if they want to avoid becoming one dimensional against a potent 49ers pass rush.

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