Typically matchups involve players that are on the field at the same time, whether it's a defensive lineman and an offensive lineman slugging it out for an entire game or a go-to wide receiver locked down by a shutdown cornerback. But this week the Vikings and Lions are both pinning their hopes of earning their first win of the 2010 season on a pair of running backs that are the centerpieces of their respective offenses – making the battle between Adrian Peterson and rookie Jahvid Best this week's key matchup.
With the Vikings shorthanded at wide receiver, the role of Peterson in the Vikings offense has become even more pronounced. Despite getting hit in the backfield often last week, Peterson put the team on his shoulders and gave the Vikings one of their strongest games from the rush perspective in almost a year of regular-season games. Through two games, Peterson has rushed 47 times for 232 yards and a touchdown – rushing numbers that would have been even higher had the Vikings not all but abandoned the run in the second half against the Saints. Adding to that, he has eight receptions as well, second only to Visanthe Shiancoe. Some may argue that 55 touches in two games is an awful heavy workload early in the season, but those numbers may be dwarfed this week.
The Lions have one of the worst run defenses in the league. They have allowed 263 yards on the ground in two games and teams have averaged 4.5 yards a carry – no small feat considering that Lions' opponents are averaging 30 carries a game against them. This is a team that can get worn down and gives up rushing yardage in chunks. It's hard to believe that the Vikings would become a ball-control team, but the recipe is there to sustain long drives using Peterson as a one-man battering ram.
On the flip side of the equation is Best. Perhaps from having to play A.P. twice a year, the Lions have learned the value of a breakaway back to an offense. Fearing that Best wouldn't still be on the board when they picked with the second choice of the second round in April's draft, the Lions cut a deal with the Vikings to move back into the first round to select Best. Not since Barry Sanders left for an early retirement has Detroit had the kind of explosiveness in the backfield that Best provides. Although he has been bottled up on the ground by the Bears and Eagles – he has just 98 yards on 31 carries, with 33 yards on one rush and 65 yards total on the other 30 – he has proved his worth to the offense.
Used in a manner similar to how the Eagles employed Brian Westbrook for years, Best is not only the featured running back – the rest of the backs on the roster have just 10 carries combined through two games – but is the leading receiver as well. He has caught 14 passes for 170 yards, including an electrifying 75-yard catch and run against the Eagles last week. He showed the explosive burst that he possesses, as well as a nose for the end zone. He followed up his two-touchdown debut against the Bears with a three-touchdown game against Philadelphia. It is clear that the Lions offense is going to run through Best. Calvin Johnson may be the best pure athlete on the team, but Best is going to be the focal point.
Under ordinary circumstances, this matchup would seem to play into the hands of the Vikings, since Minnesota has one of the league's top run defenses and the Lions have historically had one of the worst. However, they are averaging 100 yards a game on the ground and have been gashed late in games with solid rushing efforts. While still clearly ahead in the matchup of run-stopping defenses, the gap isn't as wide as it has been in the past.
Two electrifying runners. Two game plans designed to get them the ball early and often. One field. Only one team can get their first win of the season. Which team that is will likely be dependent on who has the better day – Peterson or Best.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Key matchup: The running backs converge
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