The real key to Minnesota's victory Sunday was defense, particularly the pressure the Vikes' front four was able to exert. It's a terrific group: Doug Martin and Chris Doleman, the best outside rusher, at the ends; Millard, their strongest inside rusher, and Henry Thomas, an active rookie, as the tackles. Minnesota's defensive coordinator, Floyd Peters, who built those fine pass-rush units at San Francisco and Detroit, is a dedicated 4-3 man who relies very little on blitzing. He likes his four linemen to do it themselves, working off a complicated series of stunts and loops—twists, they're called—freeing up the linebackers for coverage.
Minnesota's is a small line by today's standards, averaging 263 pounds per man, with no one heavier than 268. The quartet plays without relief. In the Vikings' late-season losses to the Bears and Redskins the defense crumbled at the end. One reason was that a bit of the edge was off the pass rush.
That edge will have to be back against the 49ers. San Francisco wideout Jerry Rice's spectacular production was carefully set up by a whole variety of shorter passes. The tight end, John Frank, has been in the offense more, as have the slashing, crossing, pass-catching plays for Roger Craig and Tom Rathman. When defenders close in to stop the underneath stuff, there's Rice, waiting. The key to stopping the Niners is cutting the production of the shorter routes, and that's where the Vikings' Jesse Solomon comes in.
Solomon, a weakside linebacker whose strength is pass coverage, sat out the Saints game with a knee injury, but he says he'll be ready for San Francisco—and Craig. Solomon is 6 feet, 236 pounds, but speedy—capable, he says, of a 4.5 40.
Last season the Vikes beat the Niners 27-24 in overtime, but Jeff Kemp, not Joe Montana, was the 49er quarterback. Two years ago Minnesota won 28-21, thanks to five lost San Francisco fumbles, one short of the 49er record.
"You have to go back into the Dark Ages to find a game when we played this poorly," 49er coach Bill Walsh said at the time. Or maybe it's just that the Vikings know how to beat San Francisco. And right now, they're hot.