Without Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings will no longer have to feel the pressure to feed the beast of the backfield. It will go against what the Vikings have preached since the Brad Childress era – that they are a run-first offense.
Head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner will have to collaborate closely to earn wins with a new approach, and the offensive line will have to take greater pride and execution in pass protection, even as left tackle Matt Kalil joins Peterson on injured reserve and is likely done for the season after hip surgery.
Can a pass-first offense be a winning approach for a Vikings franchise that has held onto the ground-hugging past longer than most NFL teams? Sure, they’ve done it before, but sparingly.
The handful of times the Vikings have passed the ball more than run it in a winning effort during the Zimmer era includes both games this year.
“We’re rushing for 1.9 yards a carry,” Zimmer acknowledged last week when asked if the offense will have to transition without Peterson.
Actually, they are averaging 2.3 yards a rush, but in fact, they have been winning by winging it without Peterson being effective. In two games, he averaged just 1.6 yards a carry while receiver Stefon Diggs took the NFL lead with 285 yards receiving.
“I think it’s the way he practices,” fellow receiver Adam Thielen said of Diggs’ early success. “He comes out here 100 percent, maybe even harder than he is in a game, because he’s just going so fast. I think that makes a difference for him that maybe it comes easier in the game.”
In their two wins this season, the Vikings have thrown the ball 33 and 31 times and run it 28 and 22 times, respectively. It was more by force than choice, as Peterson consistently faced eight or nine defenders in the box (16 of 19 times against Tennessee, and 10 of 12 carries against Green Bay before tearing the lateral meniscus on his final run last Sunday night).
The offensive line is taking much of the blame for Peterson leading the NFL in negative or zero-yardage runs – eight of them after two weeks. According to Pro Football Focus, Peterson was averaging just 6.9 INCHES before taking contact. It’s difficult to run “All Day” when the holes go dark so quickly.
The Vikings tried to adapt on Sunday night after Peterson experienced little success in the first half.
“I think it was just the scheme. We changed it up a little bit and we wanted to do a little more outside,” guard Alex Boone said before taking part in the blame. “It’s on the offensive line. No matter what happens, it always falls on the offensive line to get the run game going. There’s things we’ve got to clean up and, like I said before, I’m sick of saying that. It falls on everybody. We’ve got to be big boys and bow up. You’re going to play Carolina in their stadium on the road – it’s going to be a lot of fun, but it’s going to be tough.”
Defenses will change their approach without the threat of Peterson, but the Vikings likely will have to adapt, too. As long as the offensive line can improve its pass protection, now is the prime time to have the offense become more aerial.
In 2014, without Peterson because of his legal issues and without a team as deep as it is now, the Vikings won only two games passing more than they rushed – a 19-13 overtime win over Tampa Bay (42 passes, 22 rushes) and a 29-26 win over Washington (42 passes, 27 rushes) in back-to-back midseason victories.
Last year with Peterson back in the lineup, that happened only once – a 23-20 win over Chicago in which they threw the ball 30 times and ran it 25.
“I think our philosophy won’t change. I think we’re going to be a run-first team and then just go with the game,” Thielen said. “If we need to throw it, we can throw it. If we need to run it, we can run it.”
No doubt the Vikings won’t completely abandon the run, but with Jerick McKinnon instead of Peterson it will be a fascinating look into the future without Peterson. McKinnon is more versatile in the passing game, even if he isn’t as strong between the tackles.
But the Vikings were struggling mightily in the game even with the NFL’s defending rushing champion and it’s on the offensive line to change that.
“It’s a lot of things. All of them – communication, technique, some guys getting beat one on one, one guy here, one guy there,” Zimmer said.
The film backs up that assessment.
There isn’t simply one offensive lineman to take the majority of the blame game. They have all been beaten badly on occasion throughout the first two games. Brandon Fusco has been pushed back on several occasions to blow up a run. Boone has apparently missed some communication at the line of scrimmage. And Andre Smith and Kalil have both been beaten around the edge for sacks or failed to mesh on timing with Peterson in the running game.
Smith echoed Zimmer’s assessment of “a guy here, a guy there” failing in their run-blocking assignment, but the vocal Boone is tired of it.
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“You see hope in some plays and then in others we just shoot ourselves in the foot and give up a sack or do something stupid. It’s just one of those things where we’re so close, but I’m so sick of hearing that,” Boone said. “I’m so sick and tired of everybody talking about it that we need to get it fixed because we’re going to play a really tough team this week on the road.”
Can the offense transition?
“I’m not sure,” receiver Charles Johnson said. “We want to go out there and whatever we’ve got to do to win football games, whether we’ve got to run it 50 times or throw it 50 times, whatever they want us to do, I think we’re capable of handling both. We’ve just got to continue to do the little things right.”
Or start doing them right, both in the running game and passing game. While the run blocking has left plenty to be desired, the pass protection was solid enough against Tennessee but not good enough in Week 2.
“I’m proud as hell of him,” Boone said of QB Sam Bradford. “He took some hits he shouldn’t have (expletive) taken. I’m upset about that so we’re going to fix it.”
But, while the Vikings appear capable of transitioning, the question is, will they?
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“(Running the ball) is our identity and that’s how we’re built and we’re going to continue to stay that way,” Zimmer said.
“Hopefully we can play good defense, and hopefully we can run the ball. So we’ll take our shots when we get a chance. We’re not going to change and go to like five wides every play.”
Nobody is asking for that, but the statistics from the first two games indicate the transition might already be underway.
- Based off Friday’s practice and CB Xavier Rhodes’ comments after it, Trae Waynes could get another start for the Vikings if Rhodes isn’t ready. But even after Rhodes returns, look for Waynes to be worked into the lineup more to cut down on Terence Newman’s snaps. “I think there’s a possibility of a lot of things, yes,” Zimmer said when asked about that.
- The singularly focused tendency of an NFL head coach was proven once again when Zimmer was asked on Thursday about the riots in Charlotte. “Honestly, all I do is concentrate on football. I wasn’t even aware of anything that even happened because I never watch the news,” he said. “(Wednesday) night I turned the news on and it happened to be Charlotte. That’s the only thing. It doesn’t affect me at all.”
- Bradford took a shot from Clay Matthew’s helmet on the quarterback’s left hand Sunday night, but Bradford wasn’t wearing a cast or padding of any type last week in practice. “It’s fine,” Zimmer said. “It probably hurt him a little bit in the game, but, no, he’s fine.”