By Sam McPherson
After three straight trips to the NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco 49ers fell off a bit in 2014, and this season, there are many differences from the previous four seasons. As the team opens its second season at Levi’s Stadium on Monday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings, there are a lot of questions about the direction the 49ers are headed now.
New Head Coach Jim Tomsula takes over for the departed Jim Harbaugh, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick still helms the offense. He won’t have running back Frank Gore behind him anymore, though; the new starter in Carlos Hyde. The receiving corps are different, too, as Michael Crabtree now lines up across the bay in Oakland, and former Baltimore Ravens standout Torrey Smith joins Anquan Boldin as Kaepernick’s prime targets.
On defense, there is even more upheaval. Linebackers Chris Borland and Patrick Willis retired, as did defensive end Justin Smith. In addition, the team waived Aldon Smith in early August after another criminal incident, leaving the defense front seven without four major contributors from recent seasons.
Yes, no one really knows where these 49ers are headed in 2015, but Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, we will get a good idea of what to expect this season.
The 49ers dropped to an 8-8 record last season, as they lost four of their final five games—including two to NFC West rival Seattle. A late-season loss to the Raiders didn’t help, either. Kaepernick struggled in all four losses, averaging just 137.5 yards passing per game. The team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and Harbaugh bolted for the University of Michigan.
San Francisco posted a 2-2 mark in the preseason, beating Dallas and San Diego while losing to Denver and Houston.
Minnesota on Offense
The Vikings are welcoming back veteran RB Adrian Peterson this season, after he missed 15 games last year due to legal problems and the resulting NFL media frenzy. Expect the perennial All-Pro to be on a mission this fall, starting Monday night. Meanwhile, second-year QB Teddy Bridgewater improved drastically in the second half last season and will look to continue building that momentum in 2015. Former 49ers QB Shaun Hill (2007-09) is the backup.
Bridgewater has a new veteran target in Mike Wallace to throw to this year, as well. The other WRs are all young and fast, while tight end Kyle Rudolph also gives his QB a reliable pair of hands down field.
Minnesota on Defense
The Vikings will have an interesting defense this season, with two new defensive backs injecting life into the secondary. Veteran Terence Newman comes over from Cincinnati to start, and top draft pick Trae Waynes will see lots of action as the team’s nickelback. Veterans Shariff Floyd and Everson Griffen anchor the defensive line up front. Minnesota was ranked 14th last year on defense.
Minnesota’s Players to Watch
Peterson is angry, and Minnesota’s opponents won’t like him when he’s angry. He’s also rested and ready after playing only one regular-season game last season. In 2012, Peterson played all 16 games and ran for 2,097 yards—the second-best mark in NFL history. With the decimation of the 49ers’ front seven, Peterson could run for 200-plus yards on Monday night in what will surely be a statement game for him.
The Vikings went 7-9 last year with a rookie quarterback and without Peterson. The Minnesota organization believes this is the year the team makes the playoffs again, with their division foes—the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions—regressing in the offseason. The 49ers defense will have a hard time containing Peterson in this game, and that means Bridgewater can picks his spots throwing the ball.
Look for the Vikings to beat the 49ers by double digits, ruining Tomsula’s head-coaching debut and spoiling the season-opening party at Levi’s, the site of the upcoming Super Bowl 50.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.