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Thursday, January 3, 2013
Vikings-Packers: Slowing Adrian Peterson

By Kevin Seifert

Clay Matthews tackles Adrian Peterson
Linebacker Clay Matthews says the Packers are focused on slowing Vikings RB Adrian Peterson down.
I'm going to throw out a number, and I want you to keep your composure and hold your breath until I'm through explaining it. It will require reading more than one paragraph before reacting, but I know you can do it.

As Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson romped through their defense this season, the Green Bay Packers brought down an extra man down to the line of scrimmage on only 24 percent of his rushes (13 of 55), according to ESPN Stats & Information. On the rest, they attempted to stop the NFL's top offensive player with a standard front of seven (or fewer) players.

Now hold up. Before you accuse Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers of gross negligence, consider what happened on those 13 plays against an extra run-defender in "the box." (ESPN Stats & Information defines "the box" roughly as 2 yards outside of the tackles and about 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.)

On those 13 carries against eight or more Packers defenders in the box, Peterson averaged 6.9 yards per rush. Based on this sample size, at least, the Packers' schematic commitment to stopping Peterson wasn't their primary problem.

So what was? Why did Peterson, even in the midst of a career season, torch the Packers so thoroughly in two regular-season games? Remember, Peterson averaged 204.5 yards per game against the Packers and 120.6 against everyone else. And what, if anything, can the Packers do to slow him down Saturday night at Lambeau Field?

Speaking to reporters this week, Packers players mostly blamed undisciplined gap integrity for allowing Peterson to pop off big runs that ballooned his total against them. Indeed, Peterson had seven carries of at least 20 yards against them that totaled 249 yards. He averaged 3.3 yards on his other 48 carries.

Still, those seven big runs won one game in the season series and had the Vikings in position to steal the other as well. Whether the yards come in big doses or in a steady stream, they are the biggest threat to the Packers advancing in the playoffs.

"We ain't giving up 200 again," linebacker Clay Matthews told reporters this week. "... We'll do a better job this weekend."

According to Matthews, the Packers need to "play a little smarter in regards to scheme" against Peterson.

"We had the right calls," Matthews said. "We just need to be a little smarter as far as where we fit and being a little more accountable and reliable as far as what we do. There were a couple of times where perhaps if we were playing somebody else, we might be able to fall inside somebody else's gap, but with this team, they'll make you pay."

An amateur review of Peterson's big plays reveals several examples of Matthews' point. Left outside linebacker Erik Walden got caught inside on a run away from him in the second quarter on Sunday, so he was out of position and lost contain when Peterson broke it back the other way for an 18-yard gain. Cornerback Tramon Williams, meanwhile, lost contain on a 22-yard run in the first quarter, taking on fullback Jerome Felton's inside shoulder while Peterson broke to the sideline.

"Guys need to hold their leverage," safety Morgan Burnett told reporters, "not being nosy, trusting that your next guy will be there to make the play. ... If one guy is supposed to contain, you've got to keep that contain."

Indeed, Peterson has hurt the Packers mostly on runs he has broken outside of the tackles and down the sideline, or at least outside of the hashmarks. As the chart shows, 205 of his 409 yards have come on 15 carries outside of the tackles. He averaged 5.1 yards on carries that remained between the tackles.

"It would be nice if we could keep him inside and not let him bounce to the edges," Matthews said. "His speed helps him get to the outside and turn it up, especially on those generally smaller DBs back there."

It would be wrong, however, to suggest this is all a matter of maintaining gap and lane integrity. The Packers’ tackling against Peterson has been weak at times, albeit in some cases because players were slightly out of position. According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers missed 10 tackles against him in two games. And in some cases, they were simply blocked well by the Vikings.

Linebacker Brad Jones, for instance, tried to grab Peterson's arms and ultimately missed the tackle on Sunday that would have stopped that 22-yard run after about 4 yards. And on Peterson's decisive 26-yard run in the fourth quarter, Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph pushed Matthews away and finally to the ground. Left tackle Matt Kalil down-blocked on defensive tackle Mike Daniels, and Felton got enough of Jones to knock him away.

The Packers' best bet, frankly, is to minimize Peterson's carries. One way to do that, of course, is to establish a big early lead. Absent that, maybe we're back to the original issue of adding extra men to the box.

As recently as two weeks ago, the Vikings demonstrated a willingness to rely more on quarterback Christian Ponder if the defense dictated it. In Week 16, the Houston Texans slowed Peterson enough (86 yards on 25 carries) that Ponder took 38 drop-backs in a game the Vikings led throughout and eventually won 23-6.

Would consistent eight-man boxes against Peterson cause the Vikings to shift more responsibility to Ponder, who has played well lately but has never started a playoff game or in any game in temperatures under 40 degrees? Matthews wasn't saying, of course, but he did offer this nugget: "If we can limit those carries and force Ponder to beat us, that's the plan we'll want to play."

That's the goal, of course. We should all, however, be glad that it's not our job to figure out how.