Most of the things that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson does that are positive on the football field are pretty obvious. He tends to run over defenders, not around them. He has the strength to add an extra yard or two to runs when he has a full head of steam. He has the speed to take any run the distance when he gets in the open field.
But one thing Peterson has struggling at since his knee surgery following the 2011 season is finishing off drives with short-yardage touchdowns.
For his career, Peterson has rushed inside the 5-yard line 118 times. Of those rushes, he has scored 51 touchdowns – hitting pay dirt 43 percent of the time. But those numbers have been skewed downward in recent years since his devastating knee injury – significantly downward.
For running backs, the 5-yard line becomes the rushing red zone. Most of us know the red zone as being the opponent’s 20-yard line. That makes sense because when a quarterback drops to pass inside the 20-yard line, there can be a realistic expectation that a completion might go for a touchdown. For a running back, it’s a different story.
Even a back as great as Peterson can’t be expected to take a handoff from the 15-yard line and automatically score. But, when inside the 5-yard line, there is a realistic expectation that he can hit a hole and make it to the goal line.
There are plenty of factors to come into play when a running back is handed the ball. A defense can flood the run zone and overwhelm the blockers in between the running back and the goal line. An offensive lineman can get blown up and ruin the play. The running back may try to freelance and bounce a run outside and allows defenders to swarm him over.
However, for the first five years of his career, nobody could touch Peterson. In that span, he was handed the ball 76 times inside the 5-yard line and scored touchdowns on 37 of them – a rate of 49 percent. Nobody had more touchdowns in that span (he tied with Michael Turner for the most) and only a handful of players had a higher touchdown percentage but far fewer carries.
He got off to a slow start, scoring touchdowns on just two of his eight runs inside the 5-yard line in 2007. His numbers spiked in 2008, but remained relatively small, scoring touchdowns on five of nine carries.
Then Brett Favre arrived.
In 2009, with Favre opening up the Vikings offense, Peterson had a whopping 30 carries inside the 5-yard line, scoring a league-leading 14 times. The following year, even with Favre sidelined for a good portion of it, Peterson ran 19 times inside the 5-yard line, finishing 10 of those runs in the end zone.
After Favre left, Peterson’s scoring opportunities in close dried up markedly as well, but of the 11 carries he had in close, he capped off six of them with touchdowns. Late that season, Peterson suffered the knee injury that many thought might end or severely curtail his career.
He came back stronger than most could have imagined. In the three seasons he has played over the last four years – one game in 2014 doesn’t count – he has two rushing titles and made it clear that he is the most dominant running back in the NFL, even after the age of 30.
But one critical aspect of his game that has changed dramatically is his performance from inside the 5-yard line. In his blowout 2012 season, he had 18 carries from the 5-yard line and in, but hit the end zone on just six of them. His chances dropped to just eight in 2013 and he scored on four of those. But in the Vikings’ resurgence in 2015 when the team won 11 games, Peterson was again front and center. He had 16 carries from inside the 5-yard line last season, but scored on just four of them – one of the lowest scoring percentages in the league at just 25 percent and a career low for Peterson since his rookie year.
Since 2012, Peterson has carried the ball 42 times inside the 5-yard line and scored just 14 touchdowns – a rate of 33 percent. His touchdown percentage numbers in that span are lower than the percentages of Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster, Frank Gore, Alfred Morris, Mark Ingram, Steven Jackson, Joique Bell, Stevan Ridley, Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams, Doug Martin, Jeremy Hill, Shonn Greene, Fred Jackson, Jamaal Charles, Trent Richardson, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Lamar Miller, LeGarrette Blount, Knowshon Moreno and teammate Matt Asiata – all of whom have scored 10 or more rushing touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line from 2012-15.
Through the four seasons since Peterson was under the microscope with analysts wondering if he would ever return to his previous form, he has exceeded just about every barrier that has been placed in front of him, with one noteworthy exception.
If the Vikings get into a game-winning situation where they’re on the 1- or 2-yard line, everybody in the huddle, on the sidelines or in the stands would likely be willing to give the ball to Peterson with the expectation of him pounding the ball in for the game-winning score. But, given his recent history, that would be far from a certainty.