There aren't many aspects of Adrian Peterson's game that need much in the way of improvement. He hasn't always been a heads-up blocker and has often been replaced by Chester Taylor because of Taylor's blocking superiority. He also hasn't fully incorporated himself as a regular weapon in the passing game. Those things will come. But one area that could prove to be important to the Vikings run at a repeat as division champion may well hinge on an area that Peterson had truly struggled at – gaining the hard yards near the goal line.
For all his talents, Peterson has struggled running the ball inside the opposing 5-yard line. Red zone numbers for quarterbacks and receivers are typically anywhere inside the opposing 20-yard line, because any time a QB drops to pass in the red zone, there can be a realistic expectation that the pass could turn into a touchdown. Handing the ball off at the 19-yard line isn't expected to produce a TD, just get you closer. For a running play to carry the expectation of a touchdown, it has to come inside the 5-yard line. If A.D. gets the ball on the 4-yard line, he's pretty much expected to score. However, that hasn't happened and the Vikings haven't used him in that capacity as much as one might think – and for good reason.
In his two years in the NFL, Peterson has carried the ball just 12 times inside the opposition's 5-yard line. The good news is that he has scored on seven of those 12 attempts, but all but one have been from one yard out. The bad news is that he has just two yards total in his career on carries inside the 5-yard line.
As a rookie, he had three carries and finished with minus-1 yard rushing. His numbers improved greatly in 2008, rushing nine times for three yards – scoring five touchdowns and being thrown for a loss three of the other four times.
To put his totals in perspective, Peterson had nine carries inside the 5-yard line and gained three yards. LenDale White led the league with 21 rushes inside the 5, gaining 29 yards and scoring 12 TDs. A total of 25 running backs had more rushes inside the 5-yard line than Peterson, including rookies Steve Slaton (18), Kevin Smith (14) and Matt Forte (12) and two running backs from the Baltimore Ravens – LeRon McClain (17) and Willis McGahee (10). His total was only three carries more than Chester Taylor, who had six carries for nine yards and two TDs last year. Of the 31 running backs with eight or more carries inside the 5-yard line, nobody has a worse per-carry average than Peterson's 0.33.
For all his talent and scoring ability, Peterson hasn't been used extensively deep in enemy territory, where it would seem logical if the team has a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line, you keep feeding it to A.D. until he either scores or gets stopped three times. That hasn't been the case, which is strange because the Vikings have been deep in the opposing red zone a lot. Having just nine carries for your star runner is hard to imagine, especially seeing as White had 21 running back red zone carries last year, two had 18, three had 17, one each had 16 and 15, three had 14, two had 13, four had 12, four had 11 and four more had 10.
The optimist will say that the focus should be that Peterson has scored on more than half of his RBRZ carries. The pessimist says that the downside carries and significant negative plays, including two fumbles, have made Peterson a potential liability in the red zone. The numbers don't lie. When you carry the ball as often as Peterson, the carries in close should be higher. He isn't getting his name called and it could well be that the five bad plays have outweighed the touchdowns, thus keeping Peterson from getting a chance to be more of a complete back that adds the hard yards at the end of drives to his résumé.
Red zone remains a test for A.D.
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