An improved 49ers team will prevent Kirk Cousins’ debut from being completely smooth sailing, but the Vikings defense will put enough pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo to secure a Week 1 victory.
THREE BIG STORY LINES
Cousins debuts vs. his old mentor
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator during Kirk Cousins’ first two seasons in Washington. Cousins led the Redskins to a win in a matchup against Shanahan last year, throwing for 330 yards and two TDs.
Hughes to start in his debut?
With Mackensie Alexander doubtful because of an ankle injury, first-round pick Mike Hughes could be one of the rare rookies to start in Mike Zimmer’s defense, if the Vikings open the game in their nickel package. It would be a big step for Hughes, whose footwork and defensive acumen impressed coaches.
Cook makes his return
RB Dalvin Cook figures to start, just over 11 months after tearing his ACL. If the Vikings choose to bring Cook along slowly in his first game back, they can lean on Latavius Murray, especially in short-yardage situations.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Vikings offensive line vs. 49ers DT DeForest Buckner
New starters Brett Jones and Tom Compton will see plenty of Buckner, but stopping the 6-foot-7 tackle will be a group effort, given the 49ers’ experiment with moving Buckner to different positions in the preseason.
Vikings DE Danielle Hunter vs. 49ers RT Mike McGlinchey
The 49ers’ first-round pick gets a tough assignment in his first game, facing Hunter at U.S. Bank Stadium. With veteran Joe Staley taking on Everson Griffen on the other side of the line, the 49ers could route extra help to McGlinchey as he tries to slow Hunter down.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
0-3 Kirk Cousins’ career record as a starter in regular-season openers. He has thrown two touchdowns against five interceptions in those games, and will look to turn things around Sunday.
THE VIKINGS WILL WIN IF…
They can build an early lead; find ways to pressure Jimmy Garoppolo as he seeks to get the ball out quickly; and sustain drives against a 49ers defense that employs plenty of Cover-3 shells to prevent teams from throwing the ball downfield.
THE 49ers WILL WIN IF…
They can keep Garoppolo clean, force Cousins into a turnover or two and get the quarterback off schedule, making him improvise behind an offensive line with a number of new pieces.
Goessling's Prediction: Vikings, 20-13
Win Probability: 65 percent