MINNEAPOLIS (AP)Brock Purdy’s fast rise with the San Francisco 49ers has had the quality of a feel-good movie, the rare quarterback drafted in the seventh round to run the offense for a Super Bowl contender by the end of his rookie year and pick up in his second season where he left off.
Even following the worst start of his young career, a 19-17 loss at Cleveland that included his first interception of 2023 and stripped the 49ers (5-1) of their undefeated status, Purdy is sitting pretty. He just probably won’t be able to stand still in his attempt to get back on track.
San Francisco plays at Minnesota on Monday night, and Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores is sure to empty the playbook with as many different pressures as he can find.
“You can never just relax and just call a play or run a play, because there’s always a thousand things that can go wrong just because of the threat of what they do in any situation,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “They’re on you a lot with that. They get you to make mistakes in that way.”
The Vikings have sent five or more rushers on 60.5% percent of passing plays they’ve faced this season, the most by any NFL team since Sportradar began tracking blitzes in 2007. The next most frequent blitzing team was Arizona (51.1%) in 2013. The league average for 2023, according to Sportradar, is 29%.
The ultra-aggressive strategy, in an era when extra rushers are being used less often in favor of thicker and safer zone coverage, has yielded mixed results for the Vikings (2-4).
Flores had an 82% blitz rate on Sept. 24 against the Los Angeles Chargers, the highest in the NFL this year, and Justin Herbert went 40 for 47 for 405 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover. But relentless pressure also led directly to both of Minnesota’s wins, at Carolina and Chicago.
The Vikings sent five or more rushers on 75.9% of passing plays against the Bears and totaled five sacks, three interceptions and a fumble recovery that Jordan Hicks returned for a touchdown in a 19-13 victory.
The Browns, who blitzed a modest 30% of the time against the 49ers, flustered Purdy into a 12-for-27 passing performance for 125 yards, one touchdown, the aforementioned interception and a career-worst 55.3 passer rating. That was his first loss in 11 regular-season starts.
Against the New York Giants on Sept. 21, Purdy faced a blitz on 69.2% of his passing plays, per Sportradar – the third-highest single-game rate in the league this season behind only the Vikings. He carved up that pressure, going 16 for 25 for 233 yards and two touchdowns against Giants blitzes in a 30-12 victory.
“There’s a lot to prepare for,” Flores said. “Not only just the skill of the players at the skill positions and then the intellect and command of the offense that Purdy has. On top of that you’ve got Kyle sitting there who’s done this for a long time, has really seen every front structure, every coverage concept, every blitz. He’s got an answer for all those.”
Minnesota’s defense took a big hit against the Bears when outside linebacker Marcus Davenport suffered a high ankle sprain that landed him on injured reserve, which means he’ll miss at least four games. Danielle Hunter is tied for the league lead with eight sacks, but the Vikings don’t have much edge rusher depth.
“We’ll need to just collectively pick up the slack in all areas,” Flores said.
MULTITOOL NAMED METELLUS
The Vikings are deep enough at safety and thin enough at cornerback that safety Josh Metellus has played 86.5% of the snaps, behind starters Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum. Metellus has been used as a nickel back, a blitzing linebacker and however else Flores sees fit.
The 2020 sixth-round draft pick had eight tackles, three quarterback hits and a sack against the Bears, forcing the fumble that Hicks scooped and scored on.
“It didn’t take long for me to see that he was smart, that he understood the game conceptually, and we as a staff could see how he could kind of fit in several spots,” Flores said. “We just continue to add more, and it hasn’t been an issue for him.”
The 49ers, who have been remarkably healthy this season, lost three key offensive players to injuries last week. They’re hopeful all three will be able to play at Minnesota, but none of them practiced on Thursday. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel hurt his shoulder in the first quarter and didn’t return, running back Christian McCaffrey left in the second half with an injured oblique and ribs, and left tackle Trent Williams left briefly with a sprained ankle before playing through it.
The Vikings rank 27th in the league in third down conversions (34.3%), a troubling trend that will be difficult to improve without superstar Justin Jefferson, who’s out for at least three more games with a hamstring injury.
“We’ve got to go into all of those tools to try to best serve ourselves on offense when you are without a player with Justin’s caliber where we have, quite honestly, built a lot of the things we do around him,” coach Kevin O’Connell said. “But that is by no stretch going to be allowed to be an excuse.”
The 49ers opted against staying on the road between games at Cleveland and Minnesota, after doing so in past years to cut down on travel, due to the extra day of rest this week with the Monday night game.
“We also know how miserable next week’s going to be when we have a six-day week coming back from landing at 5 in the morning on that six-day week,” Shanahan said. “I kind of wanted the guys to be in their own homes this week because we know what it’s going to be like here over the next 14 days or so.”
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