When Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson crumpled to the ground grabbing his right leg Sunday night, it was clear that the Vikings offense was going to have to change on the fly for the second time in a little over two weeks after already reeling from the loss of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
It wasn’t the first time in running back Matt Asiata’s short career that he has been asked to step in when Peterson hasn’t been available. In his first two seasons, he ran just 47 times in 27 games and was seeing the majority of his action on special teams.
In 2014, when Peterson was suspended after the first week of the season, Asiata and Jerick McKinnon were asked to fill the void. Asiata started nine of the final 15 games, finishing with 164 carries for 570 yards and nine touchdowns.
In the two years since, Peterson had taken the job back and, in 18 games, Asiata has rushed just 39 times. But he prepared the same as he did during the 2014 season when he was the team’s leading rusher.
With Peterson almost surely on the shelf for the remainder of the season, Asiata and McKinnon are back in familiar territory. The Vikings are no strangers to replacing starters and, while he hasn’t been asked to be a focal point of the offense before or since 2014, he’s been preparing for the time that he would be asked to take on a larger role.
“You have to treat things the same,” Asiata said of his game preparation. “Injuries are part of the game. As much as you hate to see guys like Teddy and Adrian go down, you have to get ready to play. We had that with Shaun Hill when Teddy went down. He had to step up (against Tennessee) because we needed him. Our coaches know how to get us ready to go and we have to be ready when they need us to go in.”
There is a reason why teams have 53-man rosters and 46 players active on game days. While teams occasionally have the luxury of not playing everyone on the active roster, they have 43 position players (and three specialists) – essentially backups for all positions.
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Only 22 of them start the game, but the others are important, too, especially when an injury forces them into duty.
“That’s how this game is played,” Asiata said. “When your number is called, you have to be ready to perform. That’s where film study and the extra meetings and even the extra plays after practice pay off. You have to be prepared at all times because you never know when your number gets called and they expect you to play at a high level when it is.”
While running backs in moments of honesty with the media will admit that they get a better feel for the game when they get several carries to get a feel for the game, Asiata said players can’t prepare differently when they think they’re going to be limited to special teams duty and a handful of snaps on offense. They have to look at it as though they are going to be the bell cow in the backfield, despite the knowledge it likely won’t happen.
“You can’t take it like that,” Asiata said. “You have to be ready at all times. Whether you’re starting or you’re not starting, you have to prepare like you are. That’s me. I’ve always approached it that way. I’ve done it every year. If Adrian goes down or Jerick, my role is to be ready to play.”
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Things understandably look bleak for the Vikings offense. In the last three weeks, they’ve lost three first-round draft picks that were expected to be the foundation of the 2016 offense. Given the state of the Vikings organization, there may be no three more critical losses – the quarterback, a running back that was the centerpiece of the offense and the starting left tackle.
But Asiata is convinced the Vikings can weather the storm – or, in this case, a devastating hurricane. One advantage the Vikings have is that they returned the vast majority of players from last season and are another year into the Mike Zimmer/Norv Turner scheme.
“It’s actually been a blessing that we have so many guys back on this team that have been through the system the last couple of years,” Asiata said. “We know what is expected of us and we can help the younger guys and the new guys and showing them what to expect on game days. That boosts our confidence and our self-esteem.”
Injuries in the NFL are often associated with the loss of star players who were intended to be keys to team success. But, for the understudies waiting in the wings, it’s an opportunity to prove that they have the ability to fill the void without a huge drop-off in production.
In the case of Peterson, it couldn’t be much worse for the Vikings, but Asiata, McKinnon and recently acquired Ronnie Hillman are ready to soldier on without their unquestioned main offensive threat.
“I think all of us want Adrian out there with us,” Asiata said. “He’s been one of the top leaders on this team since before I got here. When he’s not in the lineup, we’re missing something. But, it’s up to me and Jerick to step in and do our jobs at a high level. We’ve shown we can do it before and we’re ready to take on whatever challenge is in front of us.”null