Minnesota Vikings coaches have made adjustments in the way they run, but they are bullish about being a run-first, run-often team.
They should be. In their eight wins, Adrian Peterson hasn’t rushed fewer than 20 times and he has carried the ball 29 times in those of those games. In their three losses, he hasn’t carried the ball more than 16 times, including only 10 in the regular-season opener.
One number head coach Mike Zimmer has mentioned a few times this year is the combined number of carries plus completions, saying at one point that 40 is a pretty good number. Against the Atlanta Falcons, they rushed the ball 39 times and completed 20 passes.
“Any time you have 59 of those kind of plays, it’s big,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t have negative plays on offense - well, we had the interception I guess, so that’s kind of negative - but for the most part we did some good things.”
Another thing Zimmer has mentioned a few times this season: He’s not going to apologize for the way the Vikings are winning – with defense and a commitment to the ground game.
But the Vikings are one the most insistent teams on running the ball. They have 331 attempts, third in the league, bested only by the Seattle Seahawks (334) and the undefeated Carolina Panthers (379). But they are also the most successful team when it comes to having more rushing yards than passing yards in individual games.
Sunday’s win at Atlanta was another example of that. Minnesota compiled 191 yards rushing and 174 passing, the fourth time this season they’ve had more rushing yards than passing yards. No other team has more than three such games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and the Vikings won all three of them.
Peterson not only leads the NFL in rushing yards, he leads the league in attempts with 237 – 26 more than anyone else and only two others are over 200 attempts.
“That’s just kind of the style where we’re playing right now and it’s really who we are and I’m not going to apologize for that,” Zimmer said when asked if he would like to limit Peterson’s carries.
Their insistence on running the ball so much has another effect: Peterson simply wears down defenses. He leads the NFL in fourth-quarter rushing yards at 373 and is second in average-per-carry in the fourth quarter (7.9).
“Part of it, like the first drive (against Atlanta) we had five carries for 10 yards, but we continued to push and continued to push and guys keep grinding,” Zimmer said. “… The time of possession was big in this ballgame and you could see their defense on the field a long time and our guys seemed to get a little bit stronger. And then Adrian, he gets lathered up and he goes.”
The Falcons boasted about their time-of-possession advantage heading into the game, but the Vikings had the ball nearly seven more minutes than Atlanta.
Since Peterson entered the NFL in 2007, the Vikings have a league-high 36 games in which they have had more rushing yards than passing yards, according to Elias.
Opponents have tried different tactics to stop him, but he has still managed at least 100 yards rushing in four of his last five games, including a 203-yard performance. Eventually, the Vikings may have to adjust, but for now they are sticking with what works.
“One of the things about football is being able to adjust to a lot of different things. Not every week is the same, sometimes it’s the opponent you’re playing, sometimes it’s injuries, sometimes it’s the weather, there’s a lot of different things that go into those plans,” Zimmer said. “I do feel like any time you have a north in your division - NFC North or AFC North - this is a pretty good ingredient going forward when the weather starts getting colder and things like that. And it’s a little bit about a mindset too.”
Peterson has that mindset. Despite leading the league with 33 carries that have lost yardage this year, he leads the NFL in 100-yard games (six) and is tied for the lead with four runs of at least 40 yards.
When the Falcons started over-committing to stopping him between the tackles, the Vikings sprung a game-sealing outside run that Peterson took 35 yards for a touchdown.
“We had been pounding it pretty good and I don’t think we ran that play all day,” Zimmer said. “It was a way to get on the perimeter and maybe pinch them down inside. So once you’ve got by the initial wave, it was pretty easy and he did a pretty nice job hitting the crease and then down the sideline.”
After Sunday’s 158-yard performance, Peterson now has 18 career games with 150 yards more, tied with Emmitt Smith and Eric Dickerson for fourth-most all time. Only Barry Sanders (25 games), Jim Brown (22), and Walter Payton (20) have more.
A move to get Peterson more runs with Bridgewater under center also seems to have helped after starting the season with more runs with Bridgewater in the pistol.
“As coaches, there is always things that we want to do, but it really comes down to what can the players do and what can they do best?” Zimmer said.
He already knows what his offense does best – run the ball – and the Vikings are sticking with what works for them.