Key matchup: The respect of rivals

When asked who Adrian Peterson respects as an elite defender, Patrick Willis was at the top of the running back's list. The two rivals from the draft class of 2007 will have a chance to reacquaint Sunday night.

It will be a sight Vikings fans have been waiting to see since last January – Adrian Peterson on the field and running with the reckless abandon that may have already punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame. But for Peterson, Sunday's game with the San Francisco 49ers will pit him against one of the NFL's most dominant defensive players – making his battle with San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis this week's key matchup.

In a recent interview with Vikings radio play-by-play man Paul Allen, A.D. was asked who he looks forward to playing against most in terms of facing an elite defender. When Peterson hesitated to answer as he thought it over, Allen threw out the most obvious types of choices – Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, former Bear Brian Urlacher and Green Bay's Clay Matthews. When he answered, Peterson went with none of the above – naming Willis as the player he looks forward to challenging the most.

Both Pro Bowl members of the draft class of 2007, their career success has been paralleled on opposite sides of the ball. Peterson is almost universally acknowledged as the greatest running back in the league, while Willis is viewed as one of if not the best inside linebacker in the game. Both have become faces of their respective franchises, but, when they meet, their mutual respect and competitiveness comes out.

"There isn't any trash talking between us," Peterson said. "It's usually just a look we give to each other that gets it done. He knows what I want to do and I know what he wants to do. We don't have to talk trash with each other to make our point. We just go out and do what we do."

When the Vikings played the 49ers last year in Week 3, there were still some questions as to whether Peterson was going to have the pre-injury burst that he had enjoyed prior to tearing up is knee on FedEx Field late in the 2011 season. Although he didn't have a banner game, he showed he was capable of carrying the offensive workload. In the first two games of last season, he had just 33 carries. Against San Francisco with a chance to hand the 49ers a loss after they had already beaten Green Bay and Detroit (playoff teams from the previous season) in their first two games, Peterson ground the clock down in a 24-13 win by carrying the ball 25 times for 86 yards. It wasn't flashy, but it proved to many that his knee was able to withstand the punishment of being an offensive bell cow.

Clearly Peterson won't get that type of workload against the 49ers Sunday, but the going is likely to be just as difficult. San Francisco had the fourth-rated run defense in the NFL last season, due in large part to Willis shooting gaps and making plays. One of the league's best wrap-up tacklers, when he gets his hands on a ball carrier – even one of Peterson's pedigree – they rarely get away.

As coaches, players and fans gear up for the official start of the 2013 season, Peterson is going to see his first significant action of the season Sunday night against the 49ers and, given his passion for the game and violent running style, expect to see him and Willis on a collision course early and often – making this a high-impact 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.

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