Quote of the Week: Adrian Peterson, Third Down Threat

Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Adrian Peterson had just one catch for 17 yards against the Arizona Cardinals last Thursday, but his impact in the passing game was felt far beyond the stat sheet. Not typically known as a third down back or receiving option, Peterson played much more in two and four-minute situations, creating new opportunities for Teddy Bridgewater and the Minnesota offense.

He’ll never be a great pass blocker or receiver, but the threat of Peterson in the backfield is enough to alter the alignment and assignment of a defensive front. When Peterson is on the field, defenders stack the box, piling bodies near the line of scrimmage to sell-out against the run. This opens up the coverage down the field and exploits mismatches in the secondary, especially for big-bodied players like Kyle Rudolph and MyCole Pruitt. After the game, Mike Zimmer explained Peterson’s expanded role on passing downs and the team’s plan for him moving forward:

[quote_center]”We’ll probably continue to want more. When he’s in there, he’s a threat. One of the first things you do before you make the calls are, ‘Who is the back?’ so you can determine run-pass kind of things. So the more he’s in there, the more it helps your passing game as well.”[/quote_center]

Through the first quarter of Thursday’s game, Matt Asiata took every third down snap. He often relieves Peterson on what’s traditionally considered a passing down, as he’s the better receiver and pass protector. Peterson’s struggles blocking for the quarterback are well-documented, and Bridgewater has been sacked far too often this season. To combat the combined struggles of Peterson and the offensive line, Asiata is called upon to help on the edge or serve as a last-resort target out of the backfield.

He proved his worth early on, catching a swing out of the backfield for 22 yards to convert the Vikings’ first third down of the night. The very next series, he entered the game on third down, protecting Bridgewater from a free rusher blitzing off the right side of the line. If not for Asiata’s chop block, Bridgewater may have been hit from behind or sacked.

On the next third down, with 9:43 left in the second quarter, Jerick McKinnon entered the game. If Asiata’s the  sledgehammer, McKinnon’s the blade. He’s shifty, elusive, and hard to tackle on first contact. At the snap, he set up to pass protect before leaving the pocket and turning around for the football. Bridgewater shoveled the ball to him, and McKinnon turned upfield before launching between two defenders for a first down.

It’s a common sight in such situations; Asiata or McKinnon line up next to Bridgewater in the shotgun and stay in to block or flow to holes in the defense’s zone coverage. Asiata’s catch was the result of broken man coverage from the Cardinals, and Mckinnon’s first down was made possible by his situational awareness.

Given their success in the limited sample, it’s a surprise that Adrian Peterson took the field on the team’s next (and final) offensive series of the first half. Peterson’s usually on the sideline in two or four-minute situations, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner took a different approach to combat Arizona’s aggressive defense. The Vikings chewed time off the clock, executing a 10-play, 54-yard drive in 3:42. Though they didn’t score a touchdown, they kept Carson Palmer and the Cardinals off the field and entered the locker room tied at 10-10.

Below, a look at the play chart from the first half of the drive:

  • (3:44 – 2nd) A.Peterson right end to MIN 22 for 2 yards (M.Golden)
  • (3:07 – 2nd) A.Peterson up the middle to MIN 28 for 6 yards (A.Okafor)
  • (2:28 – 2nd) (Shotgun) T.Bridgewater pass short right to K.Rudolph pushed ob at MIN 45 for 17 yards (J.Bethel)
  • (2:00 – 2nd) T.Bridgewater pass deep left to M.Pruitt pushed ob at ARZ 23 for 32 yards (R.Johnson)

Peterson ran the ball up the middle on the first two plays of the drive and gained eight yards. On third and short, he lined up next to Bridgewater in the shotgun. The Cardinals brought five defenders, leaving Kyle Rudolph in man coverage. Bridgewater found him along the right sideline and Rudolph took the pass 17 yards for the first down.

The very next play, Peterson lined up in his favorite formation — Singleback-I. It’s the same look the Vikings gave the Cardinals on the first two plays of the drive, and given Norv Turner’s tendency to run on first down, Arizona was probably expecting a run. So when Peterson sprinted toward the line of scrimmage and didn’t take the football, the defense was caught in a bad position. Linebackers and safeties flew forward, creating a huge hole in their Cover-3 defense.

Bridgewater executed the play-action fake cleanly, and given the time, delivered a strike to MyCole Pruitt for a 32-yard gain. The drive stalled shortly after, but the explosive completion set the Vikings up for a 44-yard field goal. Though Peterson didn’t catch a pass on the drive, he changed the face of the Vikings’ offense. Defenders were forced to respect his rushing ability out of the backfield, and his presence alone created confusion on the backend. Unlike Asiata or McKinnon, Peterson is a home run threat who can break off a chunk gain at any time. He allowed the Vikings to eat the clock and march down the field to end the quarter.

Peterson’s a run-first back who struggles in the passing game, but he can impact a game without catching a football. His small sample size on Thursday isn’t enough to make grand predictions, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the field in more end-of-half or end-of-game situations the rest of the season. Lined up eight yards behind the quarterback, anything can happen, and defenses fear his big-play ability. That, surprisingly, can lead to big plays for Teddy Bridgewater and the rest of the offense.