The four-time Pro Bowler has been sensational in 2012, rushing for 1,812 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games. And he's done it in spectacular fashion, notching nine 100-yard games, including eight straight since Week 7. Most impressively, he has posted 20 runs of 20 yards or more, including eight runs of at least 40 yards. Those totals are phenomenal for any running back in the NFL, but they are simply remarkable for a runner recovering from a serious knee injury. Not to mention, Peterson's playing in an offense without an established complementary playmaker (since Percy Harvin went down) and a suspect quarterback in Christian Ponder.
Given Peterson's string of impressive performances against a slate of defenses geared to stop him, I decided to take a close look at the All-22 Coaches Film to see if I could discover the secrets to his success. After an extensive film session, I identified three keys to Peterson's extraordinary play:
1) He's still the best running back in the NFL.
That statement was certainly not a given entering the 2012 regular season, not after Peterson suffered a devastating knee injury against the Washington Redskins in Week 16 last year. However, Peterson has re-emerged as the NFL's top rusher this season, showing no ill effects from that injury. In fact, I believe that since that fateful day, Peterson has become a more dangerous running back due to the overall improvement in his game.
As I broke down the All-22 footage, I came away impressed with his improved vision, balance and body control. He routinely finds creases on the backsides of the defense, and punishes opponents for being overly aggressive when flowing to the ball. In addition, Peterson has shown he can make multiple lateral cuts in traffic. While most elite runners possess the ability to sequence moves in tight areas, the fact that Peterson has been able to make explosive stop-start cuts less than a year removed from surgery is remarkable.
Studying the film of Peterson's top runs, I was amazed by the number of times he made defenders miss in the hole with nifty moves. From jump cuts to spin moves, Peterson uses a full array of escape maneuvers to avoid defenders in the alley. Given the impact of missed tackles on long runs, Peterson's ability to evade and elude makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
2) The Vikings are pummeling opponents with an old-school playbook.
The NFL has been widely characterized as a passing league, but the Vikings have found success utilizing an old-school approach that can be problematic for opponents. The Vikings rely on a downhill running game that features the isolation and lead draw as primary play calls. Both of these plays are directed between the tackles, primarily between the A or B gaps, allowing Peterson to hit the hole with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. With a full head of steam and a lead blocker in front, Peterson is tough for opponents to stop or hold to minimal gains.
Breaking down the Vikings' game film, I saw that this downhill approach puts the onus on opposing linebackers to take on blockers squarely in the hole, which is certainly advantageous in today's climate. Because the spread offense dominates the high school and college levels, few linebackers get to face two-back offenses during their developmental years; they don't have much experience defeating lead blocks, and are ill-prepared to take on rugged fullbacks in the hole. Consequently, the linebackers Peterson runs against will often duck or run around these lead blocks, creating huge seams in the middle of the defense. Given his combination of speed, power and explosiveness against these overwhelmed defenders, the Vikings have been able to generate big plays on the ground with their old-school approach.
The Vikings love to get Peterson running downhill quickly, to allow him to utilize his unique speed-power combo. In the following screengrab, taken from the Vikings' Week 13 matchup against the Green Bay Packers, Peterson is aligned in the I-formation:
At the snap, he will explode downhill to his left, running a 23 isolation play between the left guard and left tackle. He will read the block of fullback Jerome Felton and make a quick cut to the open area vacated by the linebacker:
The play is blocked perfectly at the point of attack, creating a huge crease for Peterson. He finishes with a 23-yard gain:
The lead draw is another way to run the isolation, with Peterson instructed to take a series of delay steps to create the illusion of a pass. The deception creates hesitation in the minds of linebackers, making it easier for lead blockers to make contact on the second level and uproot their opponents out of the play. In the following screengrab, taken from the Vikings' Week 15 game against the St. Louis Rams, Peterson is at tailback in the I-formation:
Peterson takes a delay step before attacking the B-gap behind Felton:
Peterson works through traffic and takes it 82 yards for a touchdown:
3) Run-heavy formations create numerical advantages.
To succeed in the NFL, offensive coordinators must be able to create favorable matchups through the clever deployment of personnel. While most offensive play callers utilize various shifts, motions, formations and personnel groupings to generate big plays in the passing game, the Vikings have been able to generate explosive plays on the ground through their brilliant usage of multiple run-heavy formations from various personnel packages.
As I studied the All-22 Coaches Film of the Vikings' past few games, I noticed that their offense often jumps into quasi-unbalanced formations and goal line-type sets to create numerical advantages at the point of attack. In theory, these formations and packages are designed to force opponents to play in a phone booth. Most defenses feature sleeker defensive linemen and linebackers, selected for their ability to get after the passer. The use of tight formations allows the Vikings' big, physical offensive line to overpower opponents over the course of the game. As a result, by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, Peterson routinely finds huge running lanes, often with the game hanging in the balance.
The Vikings' offensive line also features several athletic blockers with the agility and quickness to pull and trap on the perimeter. Matt Kalil and Brandon Fusco are particularly adept at getting on perimeter defenders following pulls or traps. This enables the Vikings to utilize a variety of running plays designed to get Peterson on the edges, with multiple blockers leading the way. Few defensive backs are tough and physical enough to take on big blockers on the perimeter; the Vikings' movement-based power running scheme helps Peterson pick up significant yardage on runs directed off tackle. Looking at all of Peterson's big runs, I was blown away by how many were produced from the Vikings' "22" personnel package.
In the following screengrab, taken from a Week 14 matchup with the Chicago Bears, the Vikings have created a quasi-unbalanced line, with three tight ends on the left. This places five offensive blockers to the left of the center, giving the Vikings a numerical advantage to the side of the call:
At the snap, the Vikings' trio of tight ends executes a series of down blocks, collapsing the left side of the Bears' defensive line. Peterson takes a jab step to his right before racing to his left behind the block of his pulling guard for a 16-yard gain:
Peterson steps to his right, running an inside zone play. The offensive line steps down in unison, creating a push at the line of scrimmage:
Peterson spots a crack at the point of attack and bursts through to the second level:
In the screengrab below, also taken from that Week 14 contest, the Vikings are aligned in a tight-I formation, with "22" personnel on the field. The two tight ends are positioned on the same side, creating a tight wing:
On the snap, the Vikings are running a power-O play, with Peterson stepping to his right. Fusco pulls to kick out the defender on the end of the line:
Peterson spots the crease in the middle of the defense and explodes through the alley for a 15-yard gain:
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.