© Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
After an eventful offseason, the 49ers begin their 2018 season Sunday morning at Minnesota. It’s quite the Week 1 test for Jimmy Garoppolo and the new-look 49ers, facing one of the league’s most well-rounded teams in a place where it lost just one game in 2017.
Let’s review the matchups to watch.
San Francisco’s red zone offense
The 49ers’ were the NFL’s best offense in terms of yardage throughout the first three games of the preseason. But they struggled to punch the ball into the end zone, one of their biggest weaknesses in 2017.
Last year, the 49ers converted red zone trips into touchdowns just 47 percent of the time, the 27th-best mark in the league. They improved slightly upon Garoppolo’s arrival, ranking No. 19 in red zone efficiency in Garoppolo’s five starts. In his final two starts, however, the 49ers scored a league-leading 5.6 points per red zone trip. The Week 17 matchup came against the Los Angeles Rams’ backups, but improvement is improvement.
The Vikings allowed touchdowns in just 45 percent of red zone trips to opposing teams last year, the third-best mark in the NFL. The Minnesota defense may be the most well-rounded in the league, boasting Pro Bowlers all over the field.
Kyle Shanahan has disputed traditional thinking that calls for big-bodied receivers in red zone situations. He relies on scheme more than superior athleticism. Week 1 provides a great test.
Everson Griffen vs. revamped 49ers offensive line
The 49ers offensive line has three new starters, including left guard Laken Tomlinson, right guard Mike Person, and rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey. Their opening matchup is a daunting one. The Minnesota defensive line is lined with stars, both inside and outside, featuring edge rusher Everson Griffen.
Last year, Griffen logged 13 sacks, tied for the fourth-most in the league. He posted at least one sack in eight consecutive games to start the 2017 season. The Vikings move him all over the line, although most of his damage in 2017 was done on the left edge, where he would line up against Joe Staley.
But it’s highly likely the Vikings will deploy Griffen against McGlinchey in his NFL debut.
The 49ers’ No. 1 priority this offseason was signing Garoppolo. No. 2 was protecting him. That became clear when they used the No. 9 overall pick to draft McGlinchey, an instant starter and ultimately regarded as Staley’s successor. McGlinchey will face many of the league’s best rushers, from Denver’s Von Miller to Kansas City’s Justin Houston, in his rookie campaign. Griffen is as dangerous as any.
Marquise Goodwin vs. Minnesota secondary
Week 1 may be Marquise Goodwin’s toughest test in 2018. Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes were 2017 first-team All-Pros, and the Vikings allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns in the league.
Goodwin, who posted career highs in catches (56) and yards (962) last year, was the star of San Francisco’s training camp. He torched whoever lined up against him. He continued to impress in limited reps throughout the preseason, most notably on a 40-yard completion up the sideline against Houston.
There may not be a cornerback in the league who can run pace for pace with Goodwin, a former Olympic long-jumper who clocked a 4.27 40-yard-dash in his 2013 NFL Combine performance. What was most impressive about Goodwin’s preseason, however, was his evolution. He’s no longer just a speedster. His route-running has improved, and he has proven he can make contested catches over the middle. Those skills will be put to the test against arguably the staunchest secondary in the league.
Last preseason, Goodwin blazed past Smith and the Vikings secondary for a 46-yard touchdown. That image likely hasn’t escaped either side entering Sunday.
New-look rushing attack
Jerick McKinnon’s season-ending knee injury is a devastating blow. The 49ers signed him to a four-year, $30 million contract, with $11.7 million guaranteed, in March because his skill set transfers perfectly to Shanahan’s scheme.
It’s now up to second-year running back Matt Breida and seven-year veteran Alfred Morris to shoulder the rushing load. Breida is a fast, shifty runner and Morris is a smart, physical back with great instincts. But neither are regarded as the elite pass-catching back that McKinnon has proven to be.
One of the hallmarks of Shanahan’s offense is his use of play actions, but that is only enabled if the rushing attack keeps the defense honest. Running room is tough to come by against the Vikings, which allowed just 84.8 rushing yards per game in 2017, the second-fewest in the league.
Richard Sherman’s return
It’s the sight 49ers fans have waited four months to see: Richard Sherman donning a 49ers uniform in a game that matters.
His 49ers regular season debut features one of the most dynamic receiver tandems in the league. Minnesota’s Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs combined for 2,125 receiving yards in 2017. Sherman has praised both receivers for their precise route-running, with Thielen heavily operating on intermediate routes and Diggs posing the deep threat.
Only time will tell whether Sherman, who turned 30 in March, is the elite cover corner he proved to be throughout his seven brilliant years in Seattle. He has not played a regular season game since he ruptured his Achilles last November. He is full go entering Sunday.