Peterson remains the Vikings’ highest paid player, taking up $14.4 million in salary cap room with an $11.75 million base salary that will be paid out while he is on the commissioner’s exempt list during his legal battle over charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.
His absence is ongoing, indefinite and certainly impactful on the offense being able to establish a running game. The offense has fallen to 29th in the league this year and 24th in rushing the ball.
With rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater making his first NFL start after a season-ending broken left foot for veteran starter Matt Cassel, it would be ideal for Bridgewater to have Peterson behind him to keep defenses honest. But without Peterson in the last two games, the run game hasn’t been much of a threat.
“We have to be more consistent, number one. And then we have to get ourselves into the best runs possible in terms of when they’re giving you different looks. That was hard,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “That’s hard when you’re playing on the road in New Orleans with the situation we were in. From the standpoint of if we get some runs going, we’ve got to be more patient from a play-calling standpoint and give our guys more opportunities.”
Turner is in a tough position, however, if the running game isn’t going to put the offense in good down-and-distance situations. Through three games, the offense is on pace for only 64 first downs. According to NFL stats kept back to 1988, that would easily be worst performance the franchise has had in that category. The running game has been a major part of that statistic, too. Their 4.1-yard average gain per rush is tied for the worst among Vikings teams in the last decade.
Losing right guard Brandon Fusco to a season-ending tear of the pectoral muscle won’t help either. But with his loss and the loss of Peterson, center John Sullivan insists that it isn’t the lost players that are the problem.
“It’s got nothing to do with the personnel that’s in there right now. The guys that are out there can be successful and the offense can be successful with the plays that were called,” Sullivan said. “We just have to play better. I know it’s hard to hear that answer for you, but that’s what it really comes down to.”
With Peterson in the first game, the Vikings rushed for 186 yards and that aided with a huge assist from receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who took three carries for 102 yards. Peterson had 21 rushes for 75 yards.
In the last two games without Peterson, the Vikings have rushed for 54 and 59 yards, and Patterson only rush in the last two weeks was dropped for a 7-yard loss.
“We need to be able to take some of these 3- and 4-yard gains and make them into 8-yard gains,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “We’ve got to stay on the blocks a little bit better and we have to make sure we’re hitting the holes in the right place. It’s been a combination of quite a few things.”
In the last two games, Vikings running backs haven’t had a run longer than 8 yards. “Everyone would like to think it’s the scheme, and if you look at the first game of the season I think we had six runs over 15 yards,” Turner said. “You guys asked me after the preseason (if) I was excited to have Adrian back. Obviously he’s one of the best backs ever to play. That being said, coaches made it clear you’ve got to play with the guys we have and we’ve got to find a way to create that.”
So far, they haven’t.
Patterson has the two longest runs of the season – 67 yards and 23 yards – both in the season opener. The next two longest runs were by Peterson in that game, for 17 and 16 yards. Bridgewater is the only other Vikings with a run of 15 yards or more, and Cassel has a 13-yard scramble.
But Matt Asiata, whom the Vikings turned to with Peterson out, is averaging an even 3 yards per carry. Rookie Jerick McKinnon has rushed five times for 7 yards. As a team, the Vikings are averaging only 4.1 yards per carry, and that number is inflated with the success of Patterson and Peterson in the first game.
Combined, Asiata and McKinnon are averaging only 2.7 yards a carry.
“Sometimes you don’t get the chance to run the ball as much as you’d like. We’ve just got to adjust to the game and play the game the way it comes up,” Turner said. “The most important thing is consistency in the run. You break it down each different run and one time it’s the back and one time it’s the guard and one time it’s the tackle. Obviously it’s not going to be perfect, but when we get some run going I’ve got to be more patient with it.”
But with the numbers trending to historically bad franchise rates, patience is easy to say than execute.
“It comes down to all 11 guys. That’s what it is always is, whether it’s running the ball, pass protection, everything,” Sullivan said. “Everybody’s got to do their part. We have to execute better as an offense. We can’t have a guy make a mistake here, a guy make a mistake there. We all have to execute all the time.”
At times, Peterson could make something great out of nothing much. Without him, the Vikings haven’t even been able to get a 10-yard run from their running backs in the last two games.