At 8-3, the Minnesota Vikings are the surprise team in the NFC and a legitimate threat to claim the NFC North division title. With the league’s second-best scoring defense and Mike Zimmer’s steady hand leading the ship, Minnesota has — at the very least — a 90 percent probability to reach the postseason.
When the Vikings lost to the San Francisco 49ers to open the season, a playoff berth appeared unlikely. The defense couldn’t stop the run, Adrian Peterson ran like a 30-year-old running back, and the offensive line looked lost without John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. Mike Zimmer’s team lacked an identity early on, but they’ve slowly established themselves as one of the NFL’s most physical, technically sound teams on both sides of the ball.
As I’ve written these “What Went Right” pieces, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern. When the Vikings win, it’s because of the defense and the legs of Adrian Peterson. Specifically, the defense plays with discipline, filling run gaps correctly, tackling in space, and preventing big plays down the field. On offense, Minnesota wins when they unleash Peterson, who has at least 19 carries in every Vikings victory this season. Any less, and they’ve gone on to lose.
While the defense created turnovers against Atlanta in Week 12, it was Peterson who powered Minnesota to victory. This Sunday, when the Vikings host the Seattle Seahawks, he’ll need to do the same against an aggressive, stout run defense that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher all season.
Play No. One
The first example just so happens to be the first play of the game last week; a mix of excellent scheming from Norv Turner and powerful running from Peterson. As Andy Benoit mentioned this week in his film study, the Vikings came out in a double-tight end (12 personnel) formation, with Rhett Ellison and Kyle Rudolph lined up on the right side of the line of scrimmage. The single receiver is split wide left, making Rudolph the only receiving threat to Bridgewater’s right — his alignment “covers” Rhett Ellison, making Ellison an ineligible receiver.
The “closed” formation brings Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant into the box, making him the “force” defender on the play. Already in a less-than-ideal situation with Trufant on an island outside, the Falcons don’t help themselves once the ball is snapped. No. 52 and No. 44 slant into the C-gap and D-gap, giving Rudolph and Ellison simple down-blocks. The middle linebacker, No. 55, creeps inside, allowing T.J. Clemmings to work to the second level and chip him just enough to spring Peterson for an 11-yard gain. Trufant hesitates to tackle Peterson, and Peterson does what you’d expect him to do in this situation — bursts through arm tackles.
Turner schemed a similar play against the Oakland Raiders, which led to Peterson’s 80-yard touchdown run. He used 13 personnel, with three tight ends lined up to the right side of the formation. Pruitt, Ellison, and Rudolph executed solid down and seal blocks, cutting off the momentum of the middle linebackers to leave the cornerback in a one-on-one matchup with Peterson. That design, by the way, wasn’t just coincidence. This season, Peterson is far more effective when running to his right, per ESPN:
61 rushes, 217 yards (3.6 ypc)
65 rushes, 418 yards (6.4 ypc)
Peterson may simply be more comfortable running to the right, but it’s a noticeable difference despite the relatively similar sample sizes. He nearly doubles his yards-per-carry when running to the right side of the formation, and he has three touchdowns compared to just one (albeit an explosive, 35-yard touchdown) to the left. Part of that may have to do with the size on that side of the line. Mike Harris is a tackle playing guard, making his strength and length an advantage when reaching down linemen. Add in T.J. Clemmings on double teams, and the Vikings can really move defenders when running to the right.
Play No. Two
Peterson prefers to run out of the I-Formation because it allows him to reach full speed before hitting the line of scrimmage. Unlike the shotgun, which forces him to change gears in a much tighter space, the “I” gives Peterson the ability to diagnose a defense while sprinting straight ahead. Here, Minnesota adds a new wrinkle to the tried-and-true formula — a variation of LSU’s famous “Inside Toss.” The inside toss speeds up the handoff and gives the running back even more time to find holes. This negates some of Peterson’s impatience and clearly defines the running lanes.
At the snap, the entire offensive line steps right, creating the illusion of a run to the right. Peterson also shuffles to his right, making this look like a standard toss. But the toss, which Bridgewater fires at Peterson, is more vertical and much faster than a traditional “toss sweep.” Once Peterson gets the ball, the defense is already out of position. The linebackers flow too far to the left — making life easier for Clemmings, Ellison, and Rudolph — and take themselves out of the play. Peterson reads his blocks and uses his tremendous vision to cut all the way across the field and into the opposite B-gap. Chunk gains like this helped Peterson finish the day with 158 yards, but he wasn’t alone. After the game, Zimmer praised his tight ends and receivers for their work in the trenches:
“This week was a tough matchup because they have so many guys in the box, so we needed them to be part of it and the last run that Adrian [Peterson] had, Rhett [Ellison] made a great block, he basically blocked two guys, so the tight ends are doing a good job and that’s who we are and they have to take part ownership in it as well. I think that’s a good thing.”
Play No. Three
Turner used a bit of deception on this final play, lining up with 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends). Like the first highlighted run, the split receiver is opposite the tight ends, pulling the corner to the boundary and making the outside linebacker the “force” player. Before the snap, Bridgewater sends Zach Line in motion, and at the snap, Line takes out the “force” player with an excellent lead block.
The entire offensive line blocks down to the right, again leaving Peterson in a one-on-one situation at the second level. His jump cut and lateral agility allow him to break to the right and find open field. He was especially aggressive at the end of runs against the Falcons, often powering through first contact to finish runs with defenders on his back. Peterson makes two defenders miss and gains extra yards before a third and fourth defender finally bring him down.
Peterson possesses a unique set of skills, but Norv Turner’s run designs are also creating opportunities on the ground. The mixture of sound blocking from tight ends and receivers and Peterson’s MVP-level running have made the Vikings the NFL’s top rushing team. If they’re to beat the Seahawks on Sunday, they’ll need much of the same from Peterson and Co.