Through 14 weeks, Peterson leads the league in rushing (1,600 yards), is tied for first in rushing touchdowns (10), is averaging six yards a carry, and, as crazy as it sounds, those stats don’t do his excellence justice.
When you consider that he’s getting these numbers on an offense that is dead last in the NFL in passing—meaning that every week, defenses are able to stack the box and key in on AD and the Vikings’ running game—and that he’s less then a year removed from tearing his ACL, well now you have a better idea of just how ridiculous a season Peterson is having.
So from an X’s and O’s standpoint, how has Minnesota been able to unleash the freakish skills of their tailback?
For the most part, the Vikings employ a very simple game plan:
Line up in fairly basic formations and protect second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. No smoke and mirrors. With a running back like Peterson, tricks and deception are not needed. Just giving him the ball will, the majority of the time, result in a positive play. That’s what separates him from other backs in the NFL—the ability to make something out of nothing (or, anything).
And, of course, the ability to turn the holes that he is given into six points.
Take Minnesota’s Week 13 matchup against the Green Bay Packers this year. Towards the end of the second quarter, the Vikings faced a third-and-1 back on their own 18-yard line. For Minnesota, plays like these can be solved with a simple equation: 28 + ball = 1st down. The thing that could create an issue, however, is that everyone in the stadium knows this equation as well. Does that matter? Not if the men up front take care of their blocks.
This third-and-1 play is a great example of that. The design here is a cautious one, applicable to the specific game situation. The initial alignment of the Packers defense, which you can see in the diagram above, almost guarantees that this 3rd-and-short scenario will get converted by the Vikings.
The offensive formation has an unbalanced line, meaning there are more offensive linemen/tight ends on one side of the center than the other. The offense’s right side has four potential blockers plus the fullback (totaling five blockers) for the defenses’ four initial defenders. The offense’s left side has two potential blockers plus the fullback (three blockers) for the defenses’ three initial defenders (as diagrammed below). It’s quite possible Ponder had the opportunity to audible the coach’s call and did to a run play to the right side, but my guess is that the Vikings staff expected this front from the Packers and called the correct play. Offensive football is a chess game. How can I line up my chess pieces to get what I want? In this scenario, the Vikings win by alignment.
The actual scheme of the play is a basic “GAP” scheme. A gap-schemed play, as you can see below, has the playside linemen blocking “down” in the gap adjacent to them towards the center. On this play, it’s the linemen on the right side of the center blocking “down” to the gap to left of them, clearing the right side of the field. With the overload formation, the Vikings are also able to get one of the playside linemen, the right guard, at the point of attack by “pulling.”
Simply stated, the point- of-attack is the position on the field where the coaches expect the ball to initially go. In this play the pulling lineman leaves his original alignment at the snap of the ball and goes behind the other lineman to get to his intended location: in a position to block the outside defender who, if the rest of the offensive line takes care of its block, would be the only one in Peterson’s way. Add the fullback to the mix and now we really get the defense outnumbered.
Now the fun begins. Hand the ball to an athletic freak and watch him go. As you can see from this clip, the play design easily gets the Vikings to the line-to-gain landmark. After the snap, the Vikings offensive line blocks the Packers defensive line to the left, making the gap scheme that much more effective. The puller and the fullback are now working to second and third level of the defense, meaning Green Bay has no chance. A couple of broken tackles later and Peterson is in the open field where no one will catch him.
Talent is great, but in the NFL, even the best players need some schematic help. And when you are able to combine those two elements, there’s not much an opponent can do.
Charlie Means is the wide receivers coach for the Denison (TX) High School football team and the author of TDdaily’s Coach’s Playbook series. Follow him on Twitter @coach_means.