49ers

What 49ers did to shut down Dalvin Cook in playoff win over Vikings

What 49ers did to shut down Dalvin Cook in playoff win over Vikings

SANTA CLARA – The 49ers had six sacks in their 27-10 NFC playoff victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday, dramatic moments that will dominate highlight shows documenting what happened in this game.

Those showcase moments are fun and certainly entertaining, but few realize they’re a reward for hard work a lot less appealing to the eye.

“We had to earn the right to rush the passer,” 49ers edge rusher Dee Ford said. “Stopping the run was the only way to do that.”

That’s no easy task against Dalvin Cook, one of the NFL’s elite runners. After all, the man averages 4.5 yards per carry and exceeded 90 yards eight times in 15 games played this season. 

Shutting him down is hard, hard work.

The 49ers did exactly that, a foundational effort that allowed them to dominate this game defensively.

Cook’s stat line is nothing short of shocking. The Pro Bowler had 18 yards on nine carries. Double check the numbers if you want. They’re real. Cook averaged just 2.0 yards per carry and never carried for longer than six. Over four quarters, the Vikings never had a rushing first down. Wrap your head around that.

The defensive front dominated, linebackers attacked without relentlessly, and defensive backs prevented Cook from breaking loose outside.

“We felt like he was more of a perimeter runner, so we really wanted to attack the edges and swarm him when he got the ball,” linebacker Dre Greenlaw said. “…Cook is a great running back and it was fun competing against him. When you limit a guy like that to so few rushing yards, that’s a compliment to the entire defense about how good we are and how good we can be.”

This was Cook’s worst performance since Week 12 of the 2018 season, when he had 12 yards on nine carries against Chicago, and stands as the second-worst showing of his career. While Cook might find self-inflicted issues on tape, tipping the cap was his first instinct.

“They came out ready to play,” Cook said. “They have good players too. They played a good game.

“…We were just not really able to get in a rhythm, so they were able to sit back and do what they do. They were just able to fly around and make plays.”

The 49ers were a middle-of-the-road run defense during the regular season, with some regrettable showings as the year wore on.

[RELATED: Ford's return changed 49ers' defense]

Coaches emphasized the importance of run defense against the Vikings in particular, and players set out to shut down Cook’s typically stout ground game.

That allowed them to do spectacular things rushing the passer and creating a key turnover. Just as Ford said, those big moments in the backfield are earned and not given.

“We were able to be us,” linebacker Kwon Alexander said. “Once we do that, we can go out there and have fun and when we play together as a team it’s hard to beat us. That is all we have to do and we are going to go far.”

How 49ers star George Kittle reminds retired Rob Gronkowski of himself

How 49ers star George Kittle reminds retired Rob Gronkowski of himself

Gronk has spoken. 

The Athletic's Daniel Brown asked the former New England Patriots tight end in the lead-up to Super Bowl LIV who he would take between 49ers star George Kittle and Kansas City Chiefs counterpart Travis Kelce. There are no wrong answers, considering either can credibly claim themselves to be the NFL's best tight end since Gronkowski retired last March. 

Gronkowski, though, has a personal preference. 

“Kittle, for sure,’’ Gronkowski told Brown in Miami. “Because he just reminds me of myself a little bit with the way he plays the game.”

In 2018, Kittle and Kelce both broke Gronkowski's single-season record for the most receiving yards by a tight end. Kittle (1,377) barely edged Kelce (1,336), finishing the year with the most prolific campaign by a tight end in NFL history. 

In fact, no tight end caught more passes (216) for more yards (2,945) in the first three years of their NFL career than Kittle. But Kittle's not just a pass-catcher, enjoying run-blocking just as much -- if not more -- than scoring touchdowns. 

Kittle's complete skill set allowed him to break another one of Gronkowski's single-season records, earning Pro Football Focus' highest grade by a tight end. Combine the all-around skills, passion for the sport and a fun-loving personality, and you'd be forgiven for mistaking Gronkowski and Kittle for the Spider-Man meme. 

“I see a little bit of me in both, but I would say I’m definitely more of a Kittle, hands down,’’ Gronkowski said. “I would say that because of the attitude that he brings to the table, just the grit he brings into the trenches. He wants to bring it every time. He wants to be that guy that’s fierce out there and just wrecking guys whether it’s the passing game or the running game.”

[RELATED: Shanahan convinced Sherman to sign with 49ers over Lions]

Gronkowski will be covering Super Bowl LIV as an analyst for Fox Sports, getting an up-close view of the player he sees much of himself in. Kittle will have another chance to better Gronkowski, too.

The retired tight end didn't pick up a ring in his first Super Bowl appearance, as his Patriots once again lost to Eli Manning and the New York Giants. Sunday will mark Kittle's first appearance on the NFL's biggest stage, and he -- and the 49ers -- will hope for a better outcome than that of his predecessor. 

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.

Why Richard Sherman passed on more guaranteed money to sign with 49ers

Why Richard Sherman passed on more guaranteed money to sign with 49ers

Richard Sherman bet on himself, and it paid off in a big way.

The 49ers' standout cornerback took a big risk when he decided to sign with San Francisco, and that's without even considering the other options that were on the table at the time. The three-year, $39 million contract he signed with the 49ers was not only incentive-laden but carried less guaranteed money than a contract Sherman ultimately passed on from coach Matt Patricia and the Detroit Lions.

"But that’s not the kind of football I want to play,” Sherman said of the Lions to The Athletic's David Lombardi. “The way you run their scheme, your culture. You want to do it the Patriots’ way and that’s really not the way I do football."

Patricia, of course, is a disciple of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

"I have fun," Sherman continued. "I like music at practice. I like to hang out and be relaxed in meetings. I don’t like the stressful environment in football. [The Lions] condition every day after practice. My body isn’t built to run all day and night. I’ll be prepared, but I don’t have to be run into the ground."

Sherman has been wise to be extra cautious with his body, particularly being just over two years removed from tearing his Achilles. The 31-year-old might be getting a little long in the tooth for an NFL cornerback, but he was attracted to San Francisco at least in part due to coach Kyle Shanahan's modernized approach.

"That’s what I appreciate about Kyle,” Sherman explained. "His culture and the way he did things was very similar to how we did things in Seattle and what I was accustomed to. That made a huge difference. Hey, I can get this $20 million guaranteed and be in Detroit and lose football games. Or I can go to a place where I’m very comfortable with the scheme, coach and culture and I’m very comfortable with the things they do and I really believe we can win.

"Because I don’t think there’s anybody that can stop Kyle when he has the personnel that he has picked and put into spots, and I don’t think there’s anyone that can beat Saleh when he has the personnel that he has picked and put into spots."

[RELATED: Chiefs rookie believes he's ready to test 49ers vet Sherman]

Sherman has been correct about many things. He was right about Shanahan and Saleh, he was right to bet on himself, and after watching Detroit go a combined 9-22-1 over the last two seasons, he clearly made the right decision to pass on the Lions' offer.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.