Adrian Peterson has been the exception to many NFL rules.
He rushed for more yards in a game – as a rookie, no less – than anyone in league history. He returned to action with the Minnesota Vikings less than nine months after reconstructive knee surgery, winning an MVP award as a throwback runner in a pass-happy game. Most recently, at age 30, he came back from nearly a whole season away from the field to again reach the NFL rushing leaders.
Nearly nine years into his professional career, though, there’s still one skill that Peterson has not mastered.
Minnesota’s rally at Denver on Oct. 4 was thwarted with 29 seconds left when Teddy Bridgewater lost a fumble while being sacked by Broncos safety T.J. Ward. Peterson was supposed to block Ward, who disguised his blitz well enough that Peterson wandered into the flat as a receiver for Bridgewater. Despite a 48-yard touchdown run that afternoon, fueled by the kind of burst he showed in his mid-20s, Peterson was fuming afterward about his costly mistake.
“Put it on me. It doesn’t matter what happened throughout the game,” Peterson said. “We were in that moment, and I have to come through and make that block for Teddy.”
With the Vikings back this week from their bye, preparing for another opponent with a strong pass rush, Kansas City, Peterson’s ability to impede the path of a charging defender to keep Bridgewater upright remains a relevant subject.
Even when he has heeded his assignment on a particular pass play to read the defense for approaching rushers before releasing into a pattern as a potential target for Bridgewater, Peterson has often had trouble cleanly picking up the blitz. With some running backs, the issue is strength or effort, but with Peterson the problem has largely been technique.
Being able to block effectively is as important as ever in the league now for running backs with the proliferation of pass-first offenses. For players like Peterson who have been trained, paid and seemingly born to carry the ball through the line and up and down the field, however, this act might always be unnatural.
“You always hear coaches say, ‘Oh, well, if you don’t block, then you’re not going to play.’ I don’t think I was that guy to fit into that,” Peterson said. “If I didn’t block, I was still going to play. It was just kind of what it was. But you’ve definitely learned that you want to protect the quarterback, and those guys are your prize possessions.”
Peterson was asked again on Thursday about that blown block against the Broncos. In a rare moment of guardedness, he declined to discuss the play further, preferring to focus only on the Chiefs, who visit the Vikings on Sunday. In general, though, Peterson spoke as though he’s serious about trying to improve this skill.
“The thing about Adrian is that he doesn’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m a running back. I don’t want to work on it.’ He wants to work on this,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He wants to be out there as much as he possibly can, so he’s committed to becoming a better pass protector, and I believe he is. He’s working very hard at it and knowing which guys to block and how to block them.”
No matter the improvement in that area over the rest of his career, Peterson has his most important role in prime form. He’s eighth in the NFL with 372 yards rushing, but all seven players ahead of him have had one more game than the Vikings (2-2).
“Anytime you’re out a year, especially at my position, you’re going to come back feeling fresher,” Peterson said, adding: “My body definitely had to get used to that pounding again, but the bye week was wonderful and this week has been good. The body feels rejuvenated, refreshed, and I’m just ready to finish off what we started.”