It sounds a little zen as far as NFL defensive philosophy goes. But it was the key for stopping the NFL's most explosive running back and getting the Green Bay Packers to the next round of the playoffs.
After getting trampled by the Vikings' Adrian Peterson for 210 yards in a Dec. 2 win and 199 yards in a 37-34 loss six days ago at the Metrodome, it was clear that going after him with the same kind of reckless abandon he ran with wasn't going to do the trick. They needed to find a counterbalance. A yin for Peterson's yardage-devouring yang.
So they slowed down. They waited. They didn't try to make every play themselves. It was almost counterintuitive for players that earn a paycheck with aggression, intensity and a full-throttle mindset. But it worked.
The Packers' defense held Peterson to 99 yards on 22 carries – half of what he'd gashed them for in the two previous meetings. They also kept him out of the end zone after he scored twice on them a week ago. It was just the third time in the last 10 games that Peterson was held under the century mark. His longest run was 18 yards; he had eight runs of at least that distance in the previous games.
Keeping Peterson in check put a check in the win column for the Packers, who downed the Vikings 24-10 in Saturday night's NFC wild-card game at Lambeau Field.
"We knew this was possible, we just had to find a way to finally do it" linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "It was three games, and luckily the most important one -- we did it."
Nose tackle B.J. Raji didn't show up on the stat sheet but he showed up in every way that mattered, clogging the inside lanes so his linebackers could clean up.
"(We were) a little more disciplined," Raji said. "We tried to keep him at the same level, especially up front. Sometimes if half the (defensive) line gets upfield and the other half is on the line of scrimmage, you create a seam in the defense, and I think today we did a good job of staying on the same plane and making him run around in the backfield and guys tackled him."
Peterson excels at crashing a crease in the defense and picking up yards after contact. And he's at his most dangerous when he starts one direction, gets defenders to overpursue and then bounces back to the outside – seemingly without slowing down. The game plan Green Bay's defensive coaches laid out was one of gap discipline, keeping contain, funneling Peterson to the inside and trusting your teammates to bring him down.
"The coaches did a great job all weeklong of watching film and just showing us what to do and showing us what to do better," defensive end C.J. Wilson said. "We played good last week, but guys were going too hard and out of control. So, we were more controlled this week. Adrian is a guy, you think you got him, he'll bounce it to one side, he'll take it back to the other side, he's gone. So, last week, guys were pursuing the ball, but you leave your gap, and he hits that gap and takes it to the house."
Exercising that kind of restraint wasn't always easy.
"It's so tough. It's the hardest thing, especially for a defensive lineman, just to stay in and be like, ‘I'm going to stay here,' because you like to get to the ball but you just got to be patient and hope that he runs to you," defensive end Ryan Pickett said.
Stopping Peterson took on an even greater significance when Minnesota starting quarterback Christian Ponder was inactive in a surprise game-time decision. Ponder was injured in the win over Green Bay and his backup, Joe Webb, had just two regular-season snaps to his 2012 resume. It showed. Webb's performance was brutal – bouncing passes to receivers and firing balls straight into the air in an effort to avoid a sack. He finished 11 of 30 for 180 yards, but 50 of those came on the Vikings' only touchdown, when Green Bay blew a coverage badly and didn't have a defender within 15 yards of receiver Michael Jenkins.
But making his first start since breaking his collarbone on Oct. 21, safety Charles Woodson was quick to point out that who lined up under center for the Vikings made little difference to the defense. Woodson stepped into the lineup as if he were never gone and brought a physical presence that at times had been missing. Woodson spent most of the day near the line of scrimmage as Green Bay played eight men up to stop Peterson. His solo stop on Peterson in the first quarter – one of six tackles Woodson had for the game – likely saved a touchdown.
"Bringing a guy in the box is not about Christian Ponder, it's about one guy: Adrian Peterson," Woodson said. "Our main focus, whether it was Ponder or Webb, was to keep 28 from getting off. And if we were going to keep him from getting off, put the ball in the quarterback's hands. Whatever quarterback that was, we felt good about what was going to happen."
Peterson himself noticed the difference. How could he not?
"They played some good defense," said the NFL's leading rusher. "They played more patient defense. They stayed on the backside to take away the cutback and played slower instead of being really aggressive and overpursuing plays. With that they were able to bottle up the run game."
Because of that, they've earned a trip to San Francisco and a rematch with the 49ers and running back Frank Gore. While he's no Peterson, Gore's one of the better backs in the league and ripped the Packers for 112 yards and a score in their season-opening matchup.
But after holding down Peterson, Pickett likes his team's chances.
"He's not a piece of cake, either," he said of Gore. "Once again, we've got our work cut out for us with the run game.
"You're thinking how much worse can it get? It can't get no worse than (Peterson). (Gore's) a great back, but AP is probably the best back we've played in the last decade or two. This is a good game to play before we play San Francisco. They try to pound the ball and San Francisco is going to try to do the same thing with Frank Gore and their other backs. This is a good game to warm up."
Green Bay's defense will need to keep the heat on if it wants to keep their playoff hopes alive.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.