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Adrian Peterson could still be great … if he can overcome Vikings’ iffy line

Pro Football Focus Analysis

Adrian Peterson was unimpressive in his return to NFL action Monday night. But was that his fault? (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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If you’ve watched the NFL at all you’ve most likely heard commentators refer to the proverbial “step.” They’re referring to pure speed, and after a season largely lost to suspension and a so-so return against the San Francisco 49ers Monday night, the football-watching world is wondering whether or not Adrian Peterson has lost that step.

It’s a fair question, particularly for an aging running back like Peterson, who turned 30 in March. Once a running back starts to decline, it can go quickly, even for some of the best the game’s ever seen.

Emmitt Smith couldn’t crack 4.0 yards per carry in any of his last four seasons in the NFL. LaDainian Tomlinson averaged just 3.75 yards per carry over the last 809 carries of his career. And even after winning a rushing title at age 31, Curtis Martin’s encore was a measly 735 yards on 220 carries followed swiftly by retirement.

[Peterson’s return does little to spark Vikings offense]

So, following a game in which Peterson produced a mere 31 yards on 10 carries, the question looms. Is his renowned production heading for a cliff? How much time as an elite running back does Peterson have left?

In truth, that’s only part of the question we should all be asking. The bigger question is this: Can Peterson’s athleticism overcome the Vikings’ spotty offensive line?

Start with a look at Peterson’s past. The Vikings have traditionally employed man blocking schemes. In man schemes there is typically an intended point of attack, creating daylight for the running back. Peterson’s signature play over his career has been the lead draw. On that play the line feigns pass protection while the fullback plows through to take on a linebacker. Peterson waits a beat before receiving the handoff and is tasked with reading the linemen’s leverage to find the most favorable gap, not necessarily the biggest. It’s worked so well previously because the pass sets created space at the line of scrimmage and Peterson was quick enough to exploit it. Then his superb vision and natural running ability would take over.

With a talented offensive line, man schemes are perfect for a running back like Peterson, who can build a head of steam before he meets the linebackers. This is a big reason why Peterson has averaged at least 3.0 yards after contact for every season of his career. For comparison, Marshawn Lynch led NFL in 2014 with 3.0 average YAC.

The flipside is that with a poor offensive line, the holes at the line of scrimmage get tighter and it can leave little room for creativity from the running back.

Running back performance is always going to be inseparable from line play and Peterson has been blessed with an offensive line that has graded inside Pro Football Focus’s top 10 run-blocking teams all but two years in his career. It appears 2015 will be a third.

The Vikings will be without their top two offensive linemen for a majority of the season with Phil Loadholt gone for the year after an Achilles tear and John Sullivan missing at least eight weeks after back surgery this preseason. That leaves a hodgepodge that, if Monday was a harbinger of things to come, will struggle to open up holes for Peterson.

Between a mixture of poor line play and only 10 carries, it’s difficult to give a definitive statement on Peterson’s level of play after a year off. His 3.1 yards per carry was the 13th lowest average of any game in his career, but when he had room to work he appeared to be the same guy that ran for 1,266 yards in 14 games two seasons ago.

[Peterson calls Vikings’ performance embarrassing]

On a little dump off early in the second quarter Peterson caught the ball at his own 36 before three 49ers defenders converged on him at the 40. From there he planted his left foot in the ground and cut hard, straight up the field, making safety Antoine Bethea whiff and dragging two 49ers defenders a good 10 yards before settling at the 49ers’ 46-yard line.

The other vintage Peterson play came on the first play of the third quarter. The Vikings ran a duo run (two double teams on the side of the handoff) to the strong side, trying to open up a hole off the right guard’s outside shoulder. The 49ers interior linemen did a great job squeezing this hole, but Peterson saw the backside outside linebacker get too far upfield. Peterson cut backside into the now-open hole, broke through an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage, and then shed cornerback Kenneth Acker with a spin move before being taken down for a nine-yard gain. It may not have looked like much on first viewing, but there wasn’t a great block on the whole offensive line and Peterson got a big gain.

Peterson will be able to make runs like that until he’s 35, it’s simply the frequency that will diminish. He’s not going to rush for 2,000 yards again this year. He’ll be running behind one of the worst lines of his career and he may even cede more carries to his backup, 2014 third-round pick Jerrick McKinnon, than ever before. But the juice is still there.

He isn’t the 4.3 40-yard dash guy he was coming out of college, but even losing a 10th a second off that time puts him among the faster running backs in the league. There is also no reason to believe the power, balance and vision that has separated him from other top backs has diminished just yet.

Peterson is still among the elite at the position and as tough to tackle as anyone in the NFL in the open field. He’s just got to get into it. That’s the real question we’ll need answered going into Week 2 and beyond.

Mike Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.

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