- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Lost in the discussion over the Minnesota Vikings' retooled offense -- with its slimmed-down tight end, recently installed starting quarterback and more aggressive passing game -- is the fact the unit has been operating to this point without its most important piece. While the Vikings have played three preseason games, moving the ball effectively with their starting offense, running back Adrian Peterson has watched from the sidelines, biding his time until the stakes are high enough to merit the physical toll contact will take on his 29-year-old body.
When the Vikings finally pull Peterson out of the garage Sept. 7 in St. Louis, they'll be inserting him in an offense that will ask the 2012 NFL MVP to handle some different tasks from the ones he's typically performed. The Vikings' desire to use Peterson in the passing game has been well-documented and will probably be the most profound change for him this season, but there also will be a subtle change in the ways they use him when he's carrying the ball.
Peterson has done most of his work between the tackles in recent years, often putting together some of his biggest plays on zone runs that gave the running back a chance to read the defense and cut back against the grain if he saw an opportunity. In 2012, Peterson gained 1,536 of his 2,097 yards inside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Some of that production came on power runs, but cutback opportunities off zone blocking have always been a major part of Peterson's game. The Vikings' new offense will still have those plays, but it will have a heavier dose of power running looks, including some outside runs like they've shown in the preseason with guard Charlie Johnson pulling around the right side of the line. On those plays, Peterson will have to display enough patience to let his blockers get set up and follow them to a predetermined point of attack. The Vikings have had some of those runs in their playbook in the past; they'll have more of them this year.
"There's some lateral parts to the run game," running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "It's a little bit different read for him -- his eyes are probably at a different spot and location than they have been in the past. Any time you're running lateral, there's a degree of patience that comes with it. I think that will help grow his game; he's already got a tremendous package of things he does really well. I think this will just add to it."
The Vikings want to get Peterson on the edge of the field more often, both to maximize his explosiveness and reduce the pounding on his body, and that will inherently put the running back in some new situations. He'll run out of shotgun sets and multiple-receiver formations more often. He'll have to be better in pass protection to stay on the field on third downs, and he'll have to be more reliable catching the ball. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Peterson has dropped 5.5 percent of the passes targeted for him over the last three seasons; that rate is still better than some prominent running backs with similar numbers of targets, such as Marshawn Lynch and Darren McFadden, but it is far higher than the 3.1 percent drop rate from two of the league's best dual-threat backs (Chicago's Matt Forte and Baltimore's Ray Rice).
It's all a significant change for a running back who, for his extraordinary talent, has been more of a specialist than a generalist during his first seven seasons. But Peterson has embraced the offense, saying the scheme is what he's been waiting for his whole career, and added Tuesday that Turner has been "trying to pretty much get me into any type of situation he can in this offense to put the ball in the running back's hands."
Said Wilson: "He's had good days, but there are some days where he's been spectacular in those areas. I'm excited to see what the new and improved Adrian Peterson is going to look like when the opener starts. I think this whole team is excited about what he could bring as a dual-threat player."