It's difficult to find too much fault with a team that has a record of 11-3, but there has been an ongoing undercurrent of an unanticipated weakness to the team – the inconsistent performance of the offensive line and the production of Adrian Peterson.
While Peterson is still among the league leaders in rushing, he isn't the dominant figure he was in his first two seasons. As a rookie, he averaged 5.6 yards a rush and was able to gain 1,341 yards on just 238 carries. In 2008, he became the focal point of the offense, rushing 363 times for 1,760 yards (a 4.8-yard average). This season, he has rushed 281 times for 1,235 yards – a 4.4 average that is more than a full yard behind his rookie per-carry average.
Although his numbers are still gaudy, internally the Vikings realize that there is a problem. Peterson leads the league in carries of one yard or less and has averaged less than four yards a carry in seven of the last eight games. Some have speculated that Peterson's early-season ankle injury has lingered and limited his explosiveness. However, others point to a lack of running lanes for Peterson to consistently hit holes at full speed as the primary culprit.
With an offensive line that has one of its stars – guard Steve Hutchinson – playing through a shoulder injury and two first-year starters – second-year center John Sullivan and rookie right tackle Phil Loadholt – there has been a legitimate concern that opposing defenses have figured out the Vikings' run timing and scheme. In their last two road losses, Peterson rushed 13 times for just 19 yards against Arizona and 12 times for 35 yards against Carolina – forcing the offensive line to answer questions about their consistency.
"It's just a matter of playing better – that's the bottom line," Loadholt said. "I don't know what else to say besides that. We had played a lot better up until (the Carolina game). That was very disappointing."
The problems with the O-line were so pronounced last week that when the Vikings abandoned the run in the second half – running just three times – and were forced to pass, left tackle Bryant McKinnie got pulled because he was being beaten badly on a regular basis by Julius Peppers. Brad Childress pulled McKinnie and replaced him with Artis Hicks, who said it's a position players never like to find themselves in.
"I think everybody's been through a situation like that," Hicks said. "Nobody wants to get pulled from a game. But we're all professionals and we need to be able to bounce back from it and take it out on our opponent the next week. (McKinnie) is the kind of guy who doesn't get down too much and doesn't get too high either. He kind of stays in the middle and you have to do that in this profession."
The frustration of Sunday's loss at Carolina, especially coming so quickly on the heels of the poor performance at Arizona, had Loadholt a little defensive about the play of the line, saying that criticizing the consistency of the running game is valid, but perhaps misplaced.
"Every position on the team or every unit on every team has days like that," Loadholt said. "I don't think any team has played perfect every game and I don't think we've played perfect yet, so I guess it would be fair if you (want to question the consistency)."
The pulling of McKinnie came as a surprise to Loadholt, who said he didn't even realize it had happened until after the game, assuming McKinnie's absence was injury-related. When asked if, professionalism aside, being pulled from a game hurts a player's sense of internal pride, Hicks said it can cut deep, but professionalism dictates swallowing hard, moving forward and refocusing on executing better.
"It does (hurt)," Hicks said. "We're all prideful guys. Everyone in this locker room has pride. Too much pride can be a sin at times, but in order to do this and do it at a high level, you need to have pride and take pride in what you do. Any time you get pulled, it's a tough situation. But you have to be able to bounce back and come back the next week."
The other issue has been the penchant to abandon the run completely when it doesn't click early. Against Arizona in the second half of the game, the Vikings ran just seven times for 19 yards. Granted, they were behind 21-10 at halftime and the deficit became 27-10 with 3:19 to play in the third quarter, but the run wasn't part of the offense. Despite leading 7-6 heading into the fourth quarter, the Vikings ran just three times for seven yards the entire half.
Chester Taylor, who had just two rushes in last week's loss, said the running game and O-line have killed themselves and have allowed the game plan to be taken away from them. Peterson hasn't had a run of more than 16 yards in the last five games – a span in which he has run the ball 100 times. It has forced the coaching staff to go elsewhere to gain yardage and, in the process, completely abandon the running game.
"We have been our worst enemies," Taylor said. "We just have to go out there and play like we know we can. It all starts with the running game. We know what we have to do and what's at stake. We just have to go out and execute."
Taylor said the players need to re-dedicate themselves to gaining every inch of ground possible, but added that the coaching staff needs to have the confidence in the running game to stay with it and good things will eventually happen.
"We've just have to stick to it – start it in the first half and finish in the second half," Taylor said. "We stick to the running game, I'm sure it will open up. That's part of the running game is that you have stick to it and keep consistent and things will open up for us."
After their dismal performance against Arizona, the Vikings bounced back with a very strong effort against a good Cincinnati team. They expect the same Monday night against Chicago. For a group that is at its best when it is mostly anonymous, the offensive line is getting increased attention – not for being dominant, but for being vulnerable. As much criticism as they have received the last few weeks, its only been intensified among themselves. They are prepared to make the adjustments necessary – from week to week and within games – to bring back the Vikings' calling card of being a power rushing team.
"The guys on this offensive line, we're our own worst critics," Hicks said. "You have to be tough on yourself. It's hard to get through, but we have to put it behind us. It's tough, because that's what we hang our hat on – being able to run the ball. When you don't get a chance to establish a rhythm, you get kind of out of whack. You have to be able to make adjustments on the fly, based on what's working and what's not. We'll be better next time."
In the end, the recent stumbles of the Vikings offense have been cause for concern among those who follow the team, but, in the end, nobody will remember those games years from now if the Vikings turn things around heading into the playoffs.
"The best thing is that we still have two weeks to build momentum heading into the playoffs," guard Anthony Herrera said. "We've won our division, so we're already in. The things we have been doing wrong are correctible. It's just a matter of getting back to the basics and doing things fundamentally right. That process starts over against Chicago and builds from that point."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
O-line wants to put run game back on track
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