Running game needs rebound with A.P.’s return

The Vikings improved a lot of areas in Mike Zimmer’s first season as head coach, but the running game was one of the few areas to take a step back in 2014.

There is little doubting that one of the reasons the national media is jumping on the Minnesota Vikings as being a potential playoff contender is the fact that Adrian Peterson is back and motivated to be the best running back in the NFL.

Perhaps nobody knows the value that Peterson brings to the Vikings than their own coaching staff. Since his arrival in 2007, the Vikings had one of the top rushing games in the NFL. When he was shelved last season, that all changed – in a big way.

In 2013, the Vikings struggled badly, finishing 5-10-1 and costing Leslie Frazier and his coaching staff their jobs. But one thing they did have going for them was a strong running game led by Peterson.

The Vikings made some big strides in 2014 in a lot of areas, but the one area of their game that truly suffered was the rushing attack. Without Peterson, the running game consistently had its problems and failed to produce the kind of numbers that the NFL was accustomed to seeing from a Minnesota team.

2013 wasn’t Peterson’s greatest season, but he still finished fifth in the league in rushing with 1,266 yards. As a team, the Vikings averaged 130.1 yards a game on the ground and 4.92 yards a carry. That was enough for the team to finish sixth in the league in rushing yards and second in yards per carry.

Last season, the Vikings got off to a big start on the ground in their blowout opening-day win at St. Louis. While Peterson was held in check, rushing for 75 yards on 21 carries, the team ran for 185 yards and had the look of a team that could dominate on the ground.

Things went sharply downhill from there once Peterson was out of the lineup. Despite the strong start, the Vikings finished 2014 averaging 113.6 yards a game rushing and an average of 4.37 yards per rush. That dropped the Vikings to 14th in the league in rushing yards and 11th in average per rushing attempt.

In many statistical categories, the Vikings showed improvement – at times dramatic improvement. But the one missing ingredient from the 2014 Vikings was the lack of big days on the ground. Peterson changed the way defenses played the Vikings, forcing them to stack eight men in the box and drop a safety into run coverage. When A.P. was gone, teams no longer felt the obligation to show that sort of respect to the run game and the results showed.

In the 14 games he played in 2013, Peterson had 88 or more rushing yards in seven of them, keeping in mind that 2013 was the fewest rushing yards Peterson had in a season in which he played more than 12 games.

In his absence, everything changed for the worse for the Vikings.

The Vikings never had a game in which Matt Asiata or Jerick McKinnon ran 20 times in a game. In the 14 games he played after Peterson’s was gone, Asiata had one game with more than 88 rushing yards (91 in the regular season finale). In the 10 games he played, McKinnon topped 88 yards just twice.

The outlook for the Vikings looks much better now than it did a year ago at this time. Teddy Bridgewater has established himself as a player looking to break out in 2015. The defense is head and shoulders better than the group Mike Zimmer inherited. But the one area that took a big step backward in 2014 was the rushing game without Peterson.

With A.P. back, the running game can be pulled back up into the elite status of the NFL as it had been since he came to Minnesota eight years ago, and there are legitimate reasons why the Vikings are being viewed as a team with playoff potential. Bring back the ground dominance and the Vikings can be a team to be reckoned with given their improvement in most all other facets of the game.

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