MINNEAPOLIS -- After setting career highs with 42 catches and 588 yards in 2014, Jarius Wright began his fourth season with the Minnesota Vikings looking as though he'd be an integral part of an improved passing game.
The Vikings rewarded him with a four-year, $14.8 million contract extension four days before the season opener, and with Adrian Peterson's return to the backfield, the thoughts were that Wright and the rest of the Vikings' receivers would find favorable matchups behind defensive fronts committed to stopping the running back.
Eleven games into the 2015 season, it's a much different story for the 26-year-old. He's been targeted with only 33 passes, catching 19 of them for 257 yards. He's on pace to finish with numbers below what he posted in 2013, the first time he played 16 games. Wright's playing time hasn't only dropped by more than 10 percent, but he's also being asked to run block more often when he's in the game, too.
If any of that bothers Wright, you won't hear him say it. He's part of a mixture that has the Vikings at 8-3.
"Everybody's embracing their role," Wright said. "It probably is [hard] at first, but you just have to buy into the system. You have to realize the coaches have the best plan -- this is what they do, and we go out there and executive it."
As the Vikings have put the weight of their postseason hopes on a running game that ranks first in the league, scaling back their initial plans of a more dynamic passing game, they've been buoyed by the deference of skill position players who have put their individual success on the back burner to become part of the convoy for Peterson.
Peterson remains the foundation of the Vikings' offense at age 30, and he's one of the few whose stats get to shine in the team's current construct; he's on his way to his third NFL rushing title, and he's only 72 yards behind the pace he set in 2012, when he ran for 2,097 yards and won league MVP honors. But while Peterson put that season together behind a veteran offensive line that cleared wide swaths in defensive fronts, this Vikings team has had to supplement a makeshift line with help from other blockers.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings use a fullback more often than all but six teams in the league; they ranked second in two-back sets in 2012. But they've use two tight ends more than all but one team this season and have three on the field more than all but five teams. And in three skill position groups, that's meant a degree of selflessness from players who have had to sacrifice their own numbers for the benefit of a team objective.
Fullback Zach Line recorded 778 carries in college; tight end MyCole Pruitt caught 221 passes. They've adopted important, but unheralded, roles in the run scheme. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is making more money than he ever has in the first season of the five-year extension the Vikings gave him a year ago -- he's run blocking a career-high 45.2 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. And considering the Vikings rank 28th in the league in sets with three or more receivers, their wideouts' opportunities to make big plays are somewhat scarce. But the Vikings are winning by exerting their will on some of the league's better run defenses -- Peterson posted 151 yards on the Falcons' top-ranked unit Sunday -- which allows the concept to take root with their skill position players.
"Yeah, it really is. It really is about the team," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I’ve always preached the team and I know they’re not always getting all the catches that they want to get, but they understand we’re pretty good running the football, and they’re a part of it as well. Those guys go in there and they’ve got to block safeties all the time and corners. This week was a tough matchup because they have so many guys in the box, so we needed them to be part of it and the last [35-yard touchdown] run that Adrian had [on Sunday]; Rhett [Ellison] made a great block. He basically blocked two guys, so the tight ends are doing a good job, and that’s who we are, and they have to take part ownership in it as well. I think that’s a good thing."
The Vikings lost to the Green Bay Packers in part because they had to stray from their running game, and they might have to win an important game in December or January by asking for more from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. But this Vikings team has cast its lot with Peterson, and if the payoff is postseason success, its skill position players are content to play supporting roles.
"It's a good feeling," Wright said. "Any time a guy like Adrian gets the ball, he has a chance to score. That's exciting, just to be a part of that. We know we have to be on our blocks downfield to get the big runs."