Given that the San Francisco 49ers have handily defeated the two playoff teams from the NFC North in their first two games, there may be no player more critical for the Vikings if they intend to defeat the Niners than running back Adrian Peterson.
Head coach Leslie Frazier said earlier this week that the team expects Peterson to take on a bigger workload, but A.P. was quick to point out Thursday that the Vikings need to incorporate the deep passing game into the Vikings offense more if they intend to keep San Francisco from dropping eight players near the line of scrimmage on every play to keep him bottled up. He wants to have a big day but realizes that without a downfield passing threat it will be more difficult for him to get the holes he needs to be successful.
"It helps open up the run game and vice versa," Peterson said. "That's something we want to do – get the passing game going a little more. With our deep ball, we can spread their defense out some. I feel like we're going to do that this week."
San Francisco dominated the Packers and Lions against the run in the first two games of the season, but nobody is going to mistake Cedric Benson or Kevin Smith for Peterson. While much of the focus this week has been on San Francisco's ability to stop the run, they have yet to face an elite back like Peterson.
"We're looking forward to the challenge," Peterson said. "I don't think they've faced a run offense like we have. I think that could switch things up."
The critical element to succeed in the running game is to force safeties to play the deep zone and respect that they can get burned over the top. It's been a puzzle that neither the Packers nor the Lions were able to solve, but it is the primary key to winning or losing Sunday.
"We've got to be productive offensively and keep those guys honest – complete some balls down the field and still run the ball," Peterson said. "We have a job to do and I feel like if we're able to execute our game plan, then we should be OK."
The Vikings clearly want to establish the run, but that's the selling point of the San Francisco defense that got them to the NFC Championship Game last year – and could have got them to the Super Bowl if not for a couple of special teams fumbles. The clear matchup is the Vikings run offense vs. the Niners run defense – a strength-on-strength battle. But Peterson said the Vikings can't go into Sunday's game hoping to get by merely on the ability to run ball. Mixing and matching the run and pass will be the key if the Vikings are going to hand San Francisco its first loss of the season.
"They go hand in hand," Peterson said. "That's the type of offense we need to be. I don't feel like you can stack up and run the ball every game, especially against a defense like this. I don't think it will go too well. You've got to be able to do both."
If the Vikings are to have a chance to knock the 49ers off their perch – as they did in 2009 when the teams met at the Metrodome in Week 3 and both teams were 2-0 – much of it may depend on Peterson. Frazier said Peterson's surgically repaired left knee is at about 95 percent of full strength, but Peterson didn't want to talk numbers. He isn't there yet, but he's getting closer every day.
"I'm not going (put a percentage on) myself, but I'm feeling good," Peterson said. "Each week I feel myself improving. (My knee) feels even stronger, more stable as I go through the week. My body is feeling good and I'll be ready to roll. Each day I feel I'm getting stronger and closer to where I want to be. I'm just going to keep pushing at it."
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.
What? Peterson preaches passing game
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