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All eyes on Garoppolo, Cousins in key 49ers-Vikings tilt

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Jimmy Garoppolo is playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL over the past four games.

Kirk Cousins is playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL over the course of this season.

Garoppolo and Cousins will attract the most attention on Sunday when the 49ers face the Minnesota Vikings in a critical matchup at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

Currently, the teams hold the Nos. 6 and 7 spots in the NFC playoff picture. Both teams are 5-5 and enter on two-game winning streaks. The winner takes a huge step toward a playoff berth.

Here are five other 49ers to watch:

5. S Jimmie Ward

The 49ers’ secondary will be challenged against one of the better passing games in the NFL.

The Vikings will make some plays. It is Jimmie Ward’s responsibility to make sure those completions do not turn into big, game-changing moments.

Ward might be the 49ers’ most important defensive player due to his coverage skills and sure-tackling.

Cousins will not present many opportunities for the 49ers to take the ball away. He has thrown 21 touchdowns with just two interceptions, so if Ward has an opportunity to get the ball back for the 49ers’ offense, he has to take advantage.

4. TE George Kittle

Tight end George Kittle is a key figure in everything the 49ers do on offense.

The 49ers will try to chip away at the Vikings with their run game. And when they overcommit to stop the run, that is where Kittle becomes a huge factor for Garoppolo in the passing game.

 

Since returning from a calf injury that sidelined him for three games, Kittle is rounding back into form. He has caught a touchdown pass in three consecutive games for the first time in his NFL career.

Kittle is an important component of the 49ers’ attack against the Vikings, who play a lot of two-deep safeties. Kittle could have opportunities to catch passes underneath and split the safeties for big gains.

3. DL Arden Key

The 49ers always expect big things from defensive end Nick Bosa, who leads the team with 10 sacks in 10 games.

The elevated play of defensive lineman Arden Key has been, well, a key to the 49ers’ defense.

Key registered three sacks in 37 career games over three seasons with the Raiders. Key had three sacks in the past three games with the 49ers.

Key has proven to be adept at rushing the passer from the inside as well as the edge. The 49ers will need him to beat one-on-one blocks and apply pressure to get Cousins out of rhythm.

2. RB Jeff Wilson Jr.

It remains unknown whether rookie running back Elijah Mitchell will be available. Mitchell is questionable after undergoing a procedure last week to insert a pin into his fractured right middle finger.

This game would appear to set up well for Wilson, who is at his best gaining those tough yards between the tackles. That is where the Vikings’ defense is most vulnerable. Minnesota’s run defense does not give up big yards but teams are able to consistently get 4 to 5 yards on inside runs.

The 49ers have to remain patient.

“They play two-shell defense probably more than anybody,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Their clouds, outside corners, do a good job of funneling it inside. And by the time the back gets past the line of scrimmage, those cover-two safeties are up there at five yards.”

1. CB Emmanuel Moseley

The Vikings’ wide receivers, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, might form the best duo of wide receivers in the NFL.

Cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley and Josh Norman are going to be in for an all-day battle to keep them in check.

Thielen has not been a big-play threat, but he is the one Cousins goes to when they need yards to keep the chains moving. Thielen has 58 receptions for 624 yards (10.8-yard average) and eight touchdowns.

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Jefferson is on pace to top his remarkable rookie season, when he caught 88 passes for 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns. Though 10 games, Jefferson has 63 catches for 944 yards and six touchdowns.

Moseley has played well this season. The opposition is completing just 55.6 percent of passes when targeting him, according to Pro Football Focus. The passer rating against Moseley is just 73.0.

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