In each week of the season, there are certain matchups that jump off the page at rival coaches. It can be a premier receiver against a shutdown cornerback, a pass-rushing defensive end against a bookend left tackle or a middle linebacker against a ground-and-pound rushing attack. But this week, two players who won't be on the field at the same time will be the two most critical players in the game, making the comparative battle between Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch this week's key matchup.
At a time when passing the ball has become the formula for offensive success, Minnesota and Seattle are throwbacks. Their offenses both run through a Pro Bowl featured back and they rely heavily upon them to win games. When they're allowed to dominate, wins have followed.
There are many similarities between the Vikings and Seahawks on both sides of the ball. Both teams have young quarterbacks – second-year QB Christian Ponder and rookie QB Russell Wilson – that opposing defensive coordinators have determined can be rattled with pressure. Both teams have well-documented pass rushes – the Vikings' Jared Allen has sacks in six straight games and Aaron Rodgers can attest to Seattle's pass-rush prowess after being sacked eight times when they met in Seattle in September. With the defensive focus for both teams being on rattling the young quarterbacks, nobody will be more important to negating that option than Peterson and Lynch.
Peterson leads the NFL with 775 rushing yards, averaging more than five yards a catch. He has topped 80 yards rushing six times in eight games, has three 100-yard games and, in the last two games, has rushed 38 times for 276 yards and two touchdowns. In the process, he has reasserted himself as the pre-eminent running back in the NFL and has shown the burst that was missing in his game earlier in the season. While the Vikings have made a concerted effort to limit the number of carries Peterson takes – he has rushed more than 20 times just three times – it would seem his usage has been by design. Of the three games in which Peterson has 20-plus carries, they have come against the three teams with the most ferocious and effective pass rushes the Vikings have faced this season – San Francisco, Detroit and Arizona. That isn't a coincidence. In order to keep those teams from bringing the house against Ponder, A.P. is going to have to keep the blitzers at bay because, as he has proved, if he gets through the line untouched, big plays happen.
On the other side of the equation is Lynch. While the Vikings lead the NFL in runs directly up the middle, Seattle leads the league in runs over both left tackle and right tackle. Lynch isn't a sweep runner, but the Seahawks specialize in angle blocking and Lynch hits the hole hard. Results have followed. He is second only to Peterson in rushing yards (757) and trails only Houston's Arian Foster in rushing attempts (159). With the Seahawks trying to prevent Wilson from having to carry the offense, Lynch has become as big a bell cow running back as there is in the league.
He is averaging 20 carries a game, has four 100-yard games and has 85 rushing yards or more in all but one game this season. Given that the Vikings have struggled in recent weeks to stop the run, it would seem clear that the best way to keep Wilson protected will be to run Lynch early and often. Like Peterson, Lynch has been his most impressive over the last two weeks, rushing 31 times for 208 yards – an impressive 6.7 yards a carry.
The value of both running backs to their respective offenses is obvious. In the four games in which Lynch has run 20 times or less, the Seahawks have a 1-3 record. In the four games in which he has 21 carries or more, Seattle is 3-1. When Peterson has run more than 20 times, the Vikings are 3-0. When he hasn't, they are 2-3.
The game plan heading into Sunday's game seems obvious. Both teams are going to look to feed their lead dog carries over and over again. Given the combined success of both teams when their featured running back totes the ball more than 20 times (a combined record of 6-1), the plan coming into the game seems obvious – and makes this an impactful matchup to watch.
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: Running to success
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