Adrian Peterson has always been an explosive running back with the potential to break off a big run every time he touches the ball. The trade-off with that is that sometimes he’s going to try to do too much and get fewer yards than he could by just plowing forward.
It’s a delicate dance for a number of reasons. The eye test tells me he’s been trying to do a little too much a little too frequently lately. There are some numbers that back that up, but there is also plenty of nuance within those numbers. Let’s take a look, then, at Peterson within the context of explosive plays, negative plays and the overall scope of the Vikings’ offense:
Peterson’s last two games, in particular, made me wonder if he is trying to do too much. I went back and looked at the numbers: he’s had 45 carries the past two weeks combined. On 29 of those plays, he’s been stopped for 2 yards or fewer. Now: plenty of that has to do with subpar run blocking. Per ESPN.com, Peterson was hit within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage on 15 of his 19 carries Sunday against Detroit — a game in which he ran for 98 yards thanks to a 75-yard burst but also gained 2 or fewer on 14 of his carries.
On some of those runs, he had no chance. Other times, quite possibly because he was frustrated by his lack of running lanes, he did a whole bunch of lateral running and fancy cutting, giving up some straight ahead yards and winding up with nothing or worse.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer talked about this push-pull on Monday: “I think he gets frustrated at times,” Zimmer said of Peterson. “Part of it is making sure that we don’t allow people to run through and then part of it is, if it’s not there let’s take what we can get, but let’s not lose. And he does get frustrated at times, I see him on the sideline and talk to him a little bit, I said, ‘just stick with it, you’re going to pop one here.’ … You have to be determined and that’s something that Norv [Turner] does very well, mixing the play-actions with it. We have to eliminate the negative runs; we’ve got to get rid of those, but I’m pretty stubborn and we’re pretty stubborn about that.”
Speaking of play action, that ESPN link also notes how well Teddy Bridgewater fared in those situations Sunday, completing 8 of 9 passes for 142 yards against the Lions. Peterson’s big-play ability is credited for sucking in defenses, which is true. The flip side of that, though, is that when Peterson has plays in which he eschews a simple 3 or 4 yard gain in search of more and ends up getting 0, particularly on first down, it often puts the Vikings in obvious passing situations. In that case, play-action is far less effective and Bridgewater, playing behind a shaky line, is more vulnerable to an opponent’s pass rush.
In 2014 and 2015 combined, Peterson has gained 3 or more yards on just 70 of his 141 carries (slightly less than half, at 49.6 percent). By contrast, fellow RBs Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon have gained at least 3 yards on 62.4 percent of their carries in the same span. This season, running behind the same iffy offensive line as Peterson, they have done so on 24 of 34 carries (70.6 percent). There are plenty of nuances within those numbers, since defenses certainly pay more attention to Peterson than they do those other two runners and because they often get to run with more of an element of surprise.
There is also this: McKinnon and Asiata have combined for 311 carries the past two seasons. They have popped a run of 20 yards or more just four times (all from McKinnon). Peterson has 6 such runs, all of them in his 120 carries this season.
The thing is, Peterson in previous seasons has had explosive runs without as many negative runs. In his 2012 MVP year, he gained at least 3 yards on 57.5 percent of his carries and had a whopping 27 runs (7.8 percent) go for at least 20 yards. In 2013, he had 8 runs of at least 20 yards and a 54.5 percent rate of gaining at least 3 yards.
So what’s better: a running back who is a little more likely to consistently get at least 3 yards or a running back who gives you a better chance at breaking a big one? I’d argue it depends on the situation, but on balance what Peterson brings to the offense is considerably more valuable.
That said — and like Zimmer noted Monday — Peterson ideally would be doing a better job of realizing when the safe modest gain is the right way to go and when the opportunity for a big play is truly presenting itself. In the Vikings’ offense, the difference between 2nd-and-6 and 2nd-and-9 is huge. If Peterson (with help from his blockers) can become more consistent between the tackles while still maintaining his ability to be a home run threat, the Vikings’ offense could really take off.