Nin­ers’ fo­cus is stop­ping Cook

Antelope Valley Press - - SPORTS - By JOSH DUBOW

The San Fran­cisco 49ers de­fense features a fear­some pass rush, a shut-down cor­ner­back in Richard Sher­man and a group of safeties and lineback­ers that ex­cel in pass cov­er­age. So it’s no sur­prise that teams look to the run when they at­tack it. That fig­ures to be the case Satur­day when the Nin­ers must deal with one of the game’s most dan­ger­ous backs in Dalvin Cook as they host the Min­nesota Vik­ings.

SANTA CLARA — The San Fran­cisco 49ers de­fense features a fear­some pass rush, a shut-down cor­ner­back in Richard Sher­man and a group of safeties and lineback­ers that ex­cel in pass cov­er­age.

So it’s no sur­prise that teams look to the run when they at­tack it.

That fig­ures to be the case Satur­day when the Nin­ers must deal with one of the game’s most dan­ger­ous backs in Dalvin Cook as they host the Min­nesota Vik­ings in a di­vi­sional round play­off game.

“Com­ing into this game, through­out the year, ob­vi­ously against the run hasn’t been our strong suit through­out the year. I know they’re def­i­nitely go­ing to chal­lenge us in the run game early,” de­fen­sive tackle De­For­est Buck­ner said. “Espe­cially with Dalvin Cook back there, he’s one of the best in the league. We’ve just got to do a re­ally good job with shut­ting that down early.”

Stop­ping the run has been one of the few weak­nesses all sea­son for the 49ers (13-3), who used one of the league’s stingi­est de­fenses to earn the top seed in the NFC play­offs for the first time since 1997.

San Fran­cisco al­lowed only 169.2 yards pass­ing per game this sea­son, the fewest in the league in 10 years. That suc­cess was fu­eled by a pass rush that aligned the de­fen­sive ends out wide to cre­ate bet­ter an­gles to rush the quar­ter­back but also left some holes in the mid­dle for runs.

That could be a prob­lem against an of­fense that re­lies so heav­ily on the run thanks to Cook and backup Alexan­der Mat­ti­son.

“They run the foot­ball re­ally well,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “Very ef­fec­tive at it. It’s go­ing to be a grimy game for sure. ... We know what they try­ing to do. It’s go­ing to be grimy. We’re go­ing to have to get af­ter it.”

The Vik­ings ran the ball at the third high­est rate in the league, with their 49.1% fre­quency trail­ing only Bal­ti­more and San Fran­cisco.

Cook is the work­horse in the back­field and the en­tire of­fense feeds off his run­ning, which helps set up the deep play-ac­tion shots for Kirk Cousins.

“Dalvin is a spe­cial player,” Vik­ings of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kevin Ste­fan­ski said. “When he touches the ball, good things hap­pen. Does it open up other el­e­ments of our game? Cer­tainly it does, and we’re never go­ing to shy away from say­ing that we’re go­ing to be mul­ti­fac­eted in how we at­tack a de­fense, so hav­ing num­ber 33 is cer­tainly a nice bonus for us.”

Cook ranked sev­enth in the league with 81.1 yards rush­ing per game de­spite be­ing lim­ited at times by in­juries. He topped 100 yards on the ground in five of the first seven games be­fore slow­ing down a bit in the sec­ond half.

But he rested up the fi­nal two weeks of the reg­u­lar sea­son and had 130 yards from scrim­mage and two TDs in last week’s win at New Orleans.

“I’ve been watch­ing him since Florida State,” rookie de­fen­sive end Nick Bosa said. “He’s re­ally good. Not many peo­ple could just main­tain the speed that he main­tains through con­tact. He just makes cuts and never slows down. He’s phys­i­cal. They’ve got two of them, so it’s go­ing to be a chal­lenge. We’ve played some good backs, but we haven’t played him. We just got to bring it.”

The Nin­ers were in the mid­dle of the pack de­fen­sively against the run, but much of the dam­age against them was done by teams that fea­tured run­ning quar­ter­backs like Ari­zona’s Kyler Murray and Bal­ti­more’s La­mar Jack­son.

Only two run­ning backs reached 100 yards rush­ing in a game, with Ken­ton Drake do­ing it for the Car­di­nals and Carolina’s Chris­tian McCaf­frey gain­ing 77 of his 117 yards on two long runs.

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