Vikings season preview: A two-headed monster?

  • Article by: Kevin Seifert
  • Star Tribune
  • September 8, 2007 - 1:59 PM

We could dance in the shadows a bit if you'd like. Your 2007 Minnesota Vikings will lean, ever so slightly, on the running game. Their tailback duo of Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson will break a sweat by halftime of most games this season.

Ah, but you, fickle fan/reader/scout, know better. You know the Vikings will start the NFL's most inexperienced quarterback this season. You're aware that his top receiver is a slot specialist, and, well, you probably can't name Tarvaris Jackson's other targets. You barely noticed his new tight end this preseason, and you remember that his head coach and offensive coordinator gained notoriety through their association with the run-oriented University of Wisconsin teams during the 1990s.

So let's dispense with the pleasantries and consider the facts. The Vikings have positioned the success of their season on a strong defense and a pair of tailbacks who could each rush for 1,000 yards.

There, we said it.

Such a feat hasn't occurred since 1985, when Cleveland's Kevin Mack (1,104) and Earnest Byner (1,002) both reached the milestone. With first-time starter Bernie Kosar at quarterback, those Browns made the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

No one is suggesting such an outcome for the Vikings just yet. But the team's personnel structure all but dictates that, like Lola and Forrest Gump, the Vikings will run and run and run this season.

"That sounds good," Taylor said. "We have depth in our running back corps so we can have a great running game throughout the season. You can't win games unless you can run the ball. We're looking forward to stepping up to this challenge, especially in helping out a young quarterback. We can help relieve some of the pressure on him."

Yes, avoiding gluttony might be the biggest challenge facing coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Taylor employed his power and instincts to rush for 1,216 yards last season, while Peterson's mix of strength, speed and creativity helped him average 130.5 yards per game over three years at the University of Oklahoma.

So how much is too much? Will Jackson's arm collect dust this season while Taylor and Peterson run themselves into the ground? After all, even Forrest got tired after a while.

(Tip: The 1977 Oakland Raiders set the NFL record by rushing 681 times in a 14-game season.)

"There is just a certain comfort level in having a strong running game," Childress said. "I've been on a lot of teams where I wish we could have run the ball. Look, I'm fully aware that most explosive plays come in the passing game. But that doesn't mean you can't explode in the run game. It gives you something to hang your hat on and to be able to build off of."

How will it work?

One little problem, a teeny-tiny little factual issue. In 1985, the Browns ran up their rushing totals because Mack was a fullback and Byner a tailback, enabling them to be on the field at the same time. Taylor and Peterson both are tailbacks. Let's just say neither will be crushing a middle linebacker as the lead blocker any time soon.

So how will the Vikings maximize two players who play the same position? If the preseason is any indication, they will play together sometimes -- but more often will rotate every few series to keep fresh legs on the field.

One of Childress' objectives this preseason was to use Taylor and Peterson for similar plays, so that neither would be pigeonholed by future opponents looking for trends. Childress wanted to display both players as power runners, as receiving threats and as third-down backs in whom he has confidence as pass blockers.

"The goal is to have both those guys be able to do all things," Childress said. "You don't want to lose a step when you're calling a play. If the defense is ready to be hit with a play, and the guy in the game has to come to the sideline because he is out of breath, you want the next guy to come in and not lose anything. It's nice to be able to have a changeup with those two guys and not lose anything."

The Vikings intend to start Taylor and use Peterson as his "changeup," especially early in the season. But if Peterson's preseason is any indication, it will be difficult to keep him off the field as the year progresses.

One solution is to find creative ways to get the players in the game together more often than the Vikings did during the preseason, preventing opponents from focusing too heavily on one or the other.

Last season, for example, the New Orleans Saints got starter Deuce McAllister enough carries to rush for 1,057 yards but also found enough time for rookie Reggie Bush to catch 88 passes while also rushing for 565 yards. The Vikings experimented along those lines during the preseason, mostly on third downs, and Bevell said a twin backfield is "definitely feasible."You can put one in the backfield and split the other out wide," Bevell said. "You can have two in the backfield and then put one in motion. It's not like you need to have one of them lead blocking for the other."

Ironically, the primary beneficiary of that arrangement could well be Jackson and the passing game -- a necessity in order to prevent defenses from focusing too heavily on the running game.

Not only must defenses respect a play-action pass with the double threat looming, but they might also face untenable coverage problems.

Former NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth, now an ESPN analyst, said opponents will have to make difficult schematic decisions.

"There is the ability to create mismatches," Schlereth said. "Especially in the passing game. If Adrian Peterson is able to line up on the edge as Reggie [Bush] did last year, it will open things up and create a tough decision for the defense. How do they cover it? What are they going to do?

"Do they bring in the nickel? Or a more cover-oriented linebacker? That's putting a team in a quandary. That's what you're going to have in Minnesota with those two in the backfield."

The sticky part

After spending four seasons as a backup in Baltimore, Taylor signed a four-year, $14.1 million contract in 2006 to be the Vikings' primary ball carrier. Peterson received $17 million in guaranteed money after the Vikings drafted him with the No. 7 overall pick in April -- hardly "changeup" money, even for free-spending owner Zygi Wilf.

NFL teams always have multiple running backs, but only one can be "The Man." How Taylor handles a somewhat diminished role (he likely won't get the 303 carries he had in 2006) and how Peterson shares the spotlight will play critical roles in whether the arrangement proves productive.

"It depends on the success of the team and the character of the guys," said recently retired running back Tiki Barber, now an NBC analyst. "They need to understand their roles and function. I imagine Adrian Peterson is going to be of the mindset, 'I'm a rookie and a young guy.' But in a couple years when he starts to develop, that's when it might start to cause problems. It's a little bit of a Catch-22 in some ways."

Even when the players' personalities mesh with the rotation, their skills sometimes do not. Barber was in a similar situation with the New York Giants in 2000, when he started but shared time at tailback with rookie Ron Dayne.

Dayne actually received more carries, 228 to 213, but Barber gained 1,006 yards while Dayne finished with 770.

Barber noted the difficulty of developing a rhythm with sporadic playing time.

"It can be very frustrating," he said. "You see this all over with two starting-quality backs. Both feel they can do whatever is called for."

For now, Vikings coaches are giving Taylor deference as the incumbent. "I know they want us both to be in there as much as we can, so it's OK," Taylor said.

Peterson, the college All-America, carries the self-assurance to know he can't be kept off the field.

"We are going to be on the field at the same time, together," Peterson said. "We'll be able to throw the defense off a little bit. You'll definitely see that."

No need to dance in the shadows on that one. Without a doubt, they'll break a sweat this season. And possibly a few records as well.

Staff writer Judd Zulgad contributed to this story.

Kevin Seifert •

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