Breaking down the Vikings’ running game

Where were the Vikings most effective running the ball, and should there be concern with Adrian Peterson? We analyze both aspects of the Minnesota running game after the season opener.

Adrian Peterson’s 2014 debut was effective but lackluster.

There was no long touchdown run for him like there was in the 2013 opener on his first carry of the season, a 78-yard touchdown against the Detroit Lions. There was no 212-yard rushing effort like the last time he faced he faced the St. Louis Rams in 2012.

But Peterson served an important purpose on his way to rushing for 75 yards on 21 carries, a 3.6-yard average. Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Peterson’s early rushes were designed to keep the talented and aggressive defensive ends of the St. Louis Rams in check, and getting to the edges proved most effective in the running game on Sunday.

In that respect, Peterson’s first time playing in 2014 served its mission.

But for a running back that had 2,097 yards rushing in 2012, there may have been some questions after a 75-yard performance form Peterson against the Rams. His fullback, Jerome Felton, offered a cautionary reminder of the quick-to-jump-to-conclusions crowd.

“You look back at the year he had 2,000 yards and I think the first game he had like 85. It’s not too big of a deal,” Felton said. “For a running back, it’s all about getting a feel for the game. He points out himself what he’d do differently. I’m sure you and I can expect to see something out of him next week.”

Felton was very close in his recollection. In Peterson’s first game of the 2012 season – which was also the first time he didn’t take a carry in the preseason – he rushed 17 times for 84 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In fact, Peterson averaged 77 yards a game in his first three outings of 2012, the year he was coming back from reconstructive knee surgery performed in December 2011. He didn’t have his first 100-yard game until the fourth outing of the season and had only one 100-yard effort in his first six games of 2012.

“It was just about getting a feel,” Felton said. “Obviously he didn’t play in the preseason and it takes a few carries to get in the groove, and obviously he will.”

In some instances Sunday, it appeared Peterson was trying to bounce too many plays outside instead of hitting a seam and going. The statistics show the Vikings had seven rushing plays to the left side, either left end or left tackle, and 12 plays that went either off right tackle or outside of that. That’s 19 plays to the outside and only eight plays deemed to over left guard, up the middle or right guard.

Whether the openings in the middle weren’t as prevalent or Peterson was trying to keep the pass-rushing aggressiveness of the defensive ends down, not much worked great besides getting around the right end. Running to the right side was where all three of Patterson’s runs went – for 12, 23 and 67 yards, boosting the average around right end to 23.4 yards on five carries.

“There was some good things. I think we left a lot of yards on the field,” Felton said. “If you get this guy (blocked) here, you get that guy there and Adrian probably has 200. It was one of those things where it was his first game and Adrian is obviously going to clean some things up and we’re looking forward to this week. Overall, it was a good start but we’ve got to clean up a lot of stuff. After we do that, I think you’ll see some of those big numbers.”

Clearly, the Vikings were having more success to the outside. They averaged only 1.5 yards running over either of the guard spots on four attempts and 1.25 yards in four attempts over center.

While their play selection was more effective rushing the ball to the outside, the personnel groupings also showed when they were most effective. They were best in their base personnel grouping – two wide receivers and two tight ends. They averaged 6.88 yards on 14 rushes with Peterson, Patterson, Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison in the game.

But, they used 14 different personnel grouping on offense, despite Cassel and all five offensive linemen playing every snap. That included using three wide receivers on 20 of their 58 offensive plays.

Jarius Wright, considered the third receiver, said spreading out the offense – which already seemed to happen more under Norv Turner as offensive coordinator than it did under Bill Musgrave – also helps give Peterson more room to run.

“Having a guy like Adrian and then people like Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson and also Kyle Rudolph can open up the offense and just spread it out – spread out defenses and really be able to get the ball in playmakers’ hands,” Wright said.

It’s only one game, but at least against the St. Louis Rams there were some trends – like running to the edges and doing it most effectively with Rudolph and Ellison providing blocking support.

What will be the game plan against a New England Patriots defense that approaches things quite differently, according to Felton, and gave up 191 yards rushing on 38 carries to the Miami Dolphins? That will be up to Turner devise this week and observers to analyze after the fact.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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