The Vikings are not who we thought they were. Heck, at this point in an out-of-whack season, the Vikings are not who they thought they were, or wanted to be.
A run-oriented throwback team built on Adrian Peterson’s “famine, famine, feast” mentality has been more absorbed finding its quarterback of the future than feeding its greatest running back of all time. Last year’s victories and commitment to the run have disintegrated into a 1-5 pile of rubble lowlighted by last week’s misguided “famine, famine, fling it 53 times” approach in a 23-7 loss to the winless Giants on “Monday Night Football.”
“It’s something we’ve talked about,” said coach Leslie Frazier, whose team faces the first-place Packers (4-2) in an NFC North game on Sunday night at Mall of America Field. “We’re going to have some zero runs, some 1-yard runs. But we can’t get away from it. We know in order for us to be good at running the football, we got to stick with it. So we realize that we need to be more patient with our run game. For sure.”
But here’s the conundrum: Something also is desperately wrong with the running game, which has dropped into the bottom half of the league rankings (No. 19). Yes, Peterson’s 511 rushing yards are 12 more than he had through six games a year ago. But Peterson isn’t judged by what he did through six games in 2012, but rather by what he did in the final 10 games once his surgically rebuilt left knee returned to full strength and beyond. In those final 10 games, Peterson ran for 1,598 yards and 10 touchdowns on 235 carries (6.8).
Unlike many superstars, Peterson never could be described as a malcontent. But his frustration with the coaching staff’s sudden lack of patience with the running game is palpable.
“Any time you have two games with 13 carries or less, you definitely want more touches to get in the flow of things,” said Peterson, who had 23 carries for 90 yards the past two weeks against the Panthers and Giants. Asked why he thinks the coaching staff hasn’t had the same patience this year, Peterson said: “I don’t know. That’s a good question. I have no idea. I can’t answer that.”
‘Out of whack’
Clearly, Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who calls the plays, are struggling to stay on the same page philosophically. Otherwise, Monday night’s boxscore wouldn’t say 13 carries for Peterson and 53 passes for Josh Freeman, who was making his Vikings debut after just four practices with the team. Four.
Musgrave admitted the play-calling “got out of whack” but pointed out that Freeman threw 28 times with the Vikings down 23-7 in the final 11 minutes.
“Just trying to move the ball one way or the other, run or pass, and as we know, we weren’t having a lot of success up to that point with either one,” Musgrave said. “We’re not hitting on all cylinders in the running game like we’re accustomed to, and we’re working to get that fixed.”
Frazier, on the other hand, dismissed the notion that the score of the game was the primary reason for the play-calling imbalance.
“It was a pretty close ballgame for quite a while,” he said.
When the Vikings trailed by three at the half, Freeman had twice as many passes (16) as Peterson had runs. The Vikings got the second-half kickoff, passed three more times and punted.
The Giants fumbled the punt away, giving the Vikings the ball at New York 31-yard line. Peterson ran for 8 yards on first down, but another pass on second down was intercepted.
The next series: One run, two passes, punt. The series after that: Three pass attempts, two runs, a sack on third down. Trailing 17-7 heading into the fourth quarter, Musgrave had called 26 passes and handed the ball to Peterson 12 times.
“We probably got a little bit too sideways in that game,” Frazier said. “That’s not the ratio we wanted to have.”
Edge at QB
Next up is a Packers team that Peterson has averaged 128.4 yards against in 12 meetings. Last year, Green Bay helped him win league MVP by being trampled 55 times for 409 yards (7.4) and two touchdowns in two regular-season meetings. When Peterson last saw the Packers, he was being dragged down 9 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season rushing record en route to setting up the last-second field goal that clinched a playoff berth in the regular-season finale at Mall of America Field.
Boy, how times have changed. At least on this side of the border battle.
Yes, Christian Ponder is back in the lineup. The guy who had no turnovers and a career-high 120.2 passer rating in that 37-34 victory last season is being given a second chance after starting the year with seven turnovers and an 0-3 record. But that’s only because Freeman, the former Buccaneers quarterback signed Oct. 6, is out because of a concussion.
So, as usual, the Packers head east with the better quarterback, former MVP Aaron Rodgers, whose 116.4 passer rating in 10 regular-season games against the Vikings is the highest by one player against an opponent since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. But what’s not usual by any stretch is this:
The Packers also come in with the superior running game. Their No. 2-ranked offense is bolstered by a sixth-ranked running attack that is averaging 134.7 yards per game compared to the Vikings’ 102-yard average. Throw in the fact Green Bay is also No. 3 in run defense (79.0) while the Vikings are No. 14 (102.3) and, well, this has the potential of being not only an aerial mismatch but a physical one as well.
Dissecting the Vikings’ problems in the running game is difficult. It’s the same running back, the same five offensive linemen, the same tight ends and the same fullback since Jerome Felton returned from his three-game suspension. Yet so much has changed.
Peterson threw X’s and O’s out the MetLife Stadium window Monday night when asked to explain the difference between past and present.
“We were more physical last year, and that’s what stands out this year,” he said. “The group as a whole, offensively, we just need to start hitting guys in the mouth.”
Left tackle Matt Kalil was asked how it feels when a teammate says you’re not physical enough.
“You know,” he said, “that’s the MVP of the NFL. So I’m going to take his advice.”
Time to feast
You want an amazing statistic from Peterson’s final 10 games in 2012? Try this: Of Peterson’s 235 carries during that stretch, 57 of them (24.3 percent) went for no gain or a loss, and 98 of them (41.7 percent) went for 3 yards or fewer.
Few remember that Peterson’s best game last year — a 212-yard outing against the Rams — began with five tackles for loss in Peterson’s first seven carries. His first seven carries produced zero yards. His eighth carry went 8 yards.
What about his ninth carry, you ask? An 82-yard touchdown blast up the middle. Of Peterson’s 24 carries that day, 13 produced 2 yards or fewer for a grand total of minus-3. The other nine carries were good for 215 yards (23.9).
Now consider the two regular-season games against the Packers. Of his 55 carries, 29 of them (52.7 percent) went for 3 yards or fewer for a total of 33 yards (1.1). However, the other 26 carries went for 376 yards (14.5).
“Up there at the Dome in the final, I think we overpursued at different levels as far as gap control,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He has great vision and running ability. He makes you pay when you’re out of position. And the second, and probably most important, part is you got to tackle him. He broke a lot of tackles against us.”
As the focus this week shifts away from the future of the quarterback position to the present running back, it’s fitting to note how many carries Peterson had last week (13) and what happened on his 14th carry in last year’s first meeting with the Packers.
At Lambeau Field in Week 13 a year ago, the Packers started out almost as well against Peterson as the Giants did while holding him to 9 yards on eight first-half carries a week ago. Of Peterson’s first 13 carries in the Packers game, eight were 3 yards or fewer. But the 14th carry went 82 yards for a touchdown. The 15th carry went 48 yards and before you knew it, Peterson had 210 yards on 21 carries.
“Our attitude in the past has been you know what we’re going to do, now you have to stop it,” Frazier said. “It’s not working so well right now, but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to deviate from what we believe we do best. We just have to do it better. We have the best running back in the National Football League. Teams would love for us to drop back and throw it 53 times. That’s not who we want to be.”