SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The Vikings’ first two fruitless handoffs foretold running back Dalvin Cook’s nearly silent game during Saturday’s 27-10 playoff loss.
The 49ers defensive line outclassed the Vikings offensive line from the first snap, when defensive end Arik Armstead slipped past right guard Josh Kline to end Cook’s 3-yard run. Then defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was nearly unblocked on the next play while splitting Kline and center Garrett Bradbury to stuff Cook for a loss of a yard.
Cook was in the crosshairs of the 49ers’ second-ranked defense, which held him to 26 yards on 15 touches. The Vikings’ season-low 21 rushing yards came on 10 carries — the franchise’s fourth-fewest attempts in a regular-season or playoff game through its 59 seasons.
“We knew they were going to try us early,” Buckner said. “We had to shut [the run game] down early to make it the game we wanted to make it. I think we ended up [sacking] them about six times. That’s a testament to the guys up front and on the back end holding up in coverage.”
A listless Vikings rushing attack put quarterback Kirk Cousins behind the sticks with long third downs, during which Cousins took three of the six sacks. Coordinator Kevin Stefanski all but abandoned the running game after halftime; the offense had two three-and-out series in the third quarter before taking the field with a 27-10 deficit.
The 2000 NFC Championship Game, otherwise known as “41-doughnut,” is the only Vikings playoff game in which they attempted fewer than Saturday’s 10 runs.
“They just got off blocks well,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “They had extra guys at the point of attack and did a nice job with run support as well.”
The Vikings had no answers to spring Cook in the passing game, as he turned a team-high eight targets into six catches for 8 yards — including a long of 4 yards. The 49ers simply “rallied” well to screen attempts and check-down passes, according to Zimmer.
“We were just not really able to get in a rhythm,” Cook said. “They were able to sit back and do what they do.”
Failures weren’t from a lack of preparation, according to left guard Pat Elflein, who admitted the Vikings’ front was simply overpowered by a 49ers defense that likes to disrupt runs with a one-gap scheme, meaning its defensive linemen aggressively rush upfield instead of playing blocks.
“We knew they were a real physical group,” Elflein said. “They built their team around that front seven, and we got beat.”
It was an ironic finish for a Vikings offense built around Cook, who enters a contract season in 2020, and a sixth-ranked rushing attack that ranked fourth in carries (29.8) per game this season. But one of the NFL’s premier defensive fronts was simply too much for the Vikings. San Francisco’s defensive linemen accounted for all 11 tackles for losses against the Vikings.
The Vikings had visions of a gold rush in San Francisco, but now Cook and the offense are resigned to an offseason of pondering what went wrong.
“We fell short of that,” Cook said. “It’s a big building block, and now we get to think about what we can accomplish next year.”