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Updated: September 22nd, 2012 2:23pm
Preview: With Erin Henderson out, Jasper Brinkley's role will increase

Preview: With Erin Henderson out, Jasper Brinkley's role will increase

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com
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Who: San Francisco (2-0) at Minnesota Vikings (1-1).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Metrodome (capacity: 64,111), Minneapolis.
TV: Fox (Ch. 9).
Line: 49ers by 7½.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (2nd season, 7-17); San Francisco -- Jim Harbaugh (2nd season, 16-4).
Series: The 49ers lead the series 22-21-1 but are 3-6 in the Metrodome.
Last meeting: Trailing by four points, Brett Favre drove the Vikings 80 yards with no timeouts left and Greg Lewis made a spectacular 32-yard reception with 2 seconds left in the back of the end zone to give the Vikings a 27-24 victory in Week 3 of the 2009 season.
At stake: Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield addressed the entire team Monday, a day after the Vikings lost to the Colts on a late field goal by Adam Vinatieri. The loss left the Vikings at 1-1, but Winfield was still concerned by what he had seen and, like everyone involved with this team, has little interest in seeing the Vikings have a repeat of last year's 3-13 finish. However, this will be a tough one with the 49ers having established themselves as one of the NFL's top teams. It will be an encouraging sign if the Vikings can hang with San Francisco.

Injury report

Vikings: WLB Erin Henderson (concussion) and DE D'Aundre Reed (calf) are out. C John Sullivan (ankle), S Andrew Sendejo (ankle), CB Chris Cook (biceps), TE Rhett Ellison (ankle), LB Marvin Mitchell (ankle), LE Brian Robison (elbow) and WR Jarius Wright (ankle) are probable.

49ers: HB Brandon Jacobs (knee) and WR Ted Ginn (ankle) are questionable. P Andy Lee (hand) is probable.

Five things to watch

Getting his chance: Henderson will miss this game because of a concussion suffered last Sunday, meaning the veteran special teamer Mitchell will get the start. Mitchell signed with the Vikings as a free agent during the offseason after spending his first four seasons with New Orleans and last year in Miami. Mitchell has made only two career regular-season starts, both coming in 2009 with New Orleans. Mitchell, 27, also started in the Super Bowl that season for the Saints, who opened the game in a 3-4 defensive alignment. Mitchell injured his ankle in the Vikings' preseason finale at Houston and was inactive for the first two regular-season games.

Additional responsibilities: MLB Jasper Brinkley has been leaving the field on a regular basis when the Vikings have gone to their nickel defense in the first two games. But that won't happen on Sunday. Mitchell will be replaced on passing downs and Brinkley and SLB Chad Greenway will remain on the field. If there is any big question about Brinkley's game, it is his ability to play pass coverage in a Tampa-2 scheme where the middle linebacker has to quickly drop into coverage. Henderson failed to execute this assignment in a nickel situation last Sunday late in the first half at Indianapolis and the result was a 30-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to Reggie Wayne. Niners QB Alex Smith is sure to try to test Brinkley's coverage skills in this one. Here's one scary factoid for the Vikings linebackers: Vernon Davis has 29 touchdown receptions since 2009, tying him for third among NFL tight ends during that time.

Go deep: A main storyline coming out of the Vikings' loss at Indianapolis was their lack of vertical passes through two games. QB Christian Ponder's longest completion to a wide receiver thus far is a 26-yarder to Devin Aromashodu, and that came late in the fourth quarter of the Vikings' overtime victory over Jacksonville in Week 1 when they had to get down the field to set up a Blair Walsh field-goal attempt. Ponder has been adamant about the fact that he isn't going to make dumb decisions and throw into coverage -- he has no interceptions and a 110.6 passer rating in two games -- but the Vikings need to make teams think they can go deep once in a while or HB Adrian Peterson is going to see nearly everyone cheating toward the line of scrimmage. WR Jerome Simpson, a free-agent pickup who was suspended by the NFL for the first three games of the season, will be eligible in Week 4 and should provide Ponder with a speedy receiver who can catch the ball downfield. But on Sunday, it will be interesting to see if there are any deep shots by Ponder and the Vikings.

Tough on the run: If the Vikings are to pull the upset, Ponder and his wide receivers are going to have to play a key role because the 49ers are extremely difficult to run against. San Francisco stopped Green Bay and Detroit's running attacks in its opening two victories, giving up an average of only 63.5 yards per game. From 2008 through '12, the Niners rank first in the NFC and second in the NFL in opposing rushing average per carry at 3.59 yards. Peterson and backup HB Toby Gerhart will be the best running back tandem the 49ers have faced, but Peterson is still coming back from reconstructive knee surgery and is not yet all the way back. The reality is that might be the case for the entire season. Peterson has 144 yards on 33 carries with two touchdowns in two games, but was held to 60 yards on 16 carries by Indianapolis.

Playing his role: Niners WR Randy Moss began what is sure to be a Hall of Fame career in 1998 with the Vikings and became one of the most popular players in franchise history before being traded to Oakland after the 2004 season. Moss had a much less successful and brief second stint with the Vikings in 2010. After being out of the NFL last season, the 35-year-old ranks fourth on the 49ers in receptions with five for 61 yards and a touchdown. Moss appears to be more of a role player now and one of the NFL's top deep threats at one time is now a much-more limited player. Still, it will be interesting to see how fans respond to Moss, who will be playing his first regular-season game at the Metrodome as an opponent. Will fans remember the good times from 1994 to 2004 or the Moss who managed to talk his way off the roster after four games in 2010?

Crystal ball

Judd Zulgad: The Vikings opened with two winnable games against Jacksonville and Indianapolis. The 49ers will present a far bigger challenge for this young team. The 49ers love to run the ball and will punch the Vikings in the mouth early. The most important thing will be how the Vikings respond to that. If the Vikings don't punch back, this could be a long day. If they do punch back, it will be a positive sign. 49ers 35, Vikings 27.

Tom Pelissero: The Vikings have lost a lot of games over the past two-plus seasons, but they've been blown out at home only once by a non-division opponent: New Orleans, which rolled 42-20 on Dec. 18. The Metrodome is a tough place to play and should be rocking for Moss' return. The 49ers are clearly the superior team, though. 49ers 27, Vikings 20.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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