Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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NEXT-GEN STATS: Why Minnesota could be better without Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson is unquestionably one of the best runners in NFL history, but the Minnesota Vikings' offense might improve with him on the sidelines until at least November due to a torn meniscus. I know that statement will draw the ire of "All Day" fans, but let's be honest: He has started to show signs of decline over the last year, and the offense has been stuck in neutral whenever he is on the field.
Despite leading the NFL in rushing in 2015 with 1,485 yards, Peterson has been one of the worst runners in the league over the past 10 games (including the playoffs), averaging just 3.3 yards per carry since Week 11 of last year (the lowest figure in football for a back with at least 100 carries). He has only topped the 100-yard mark twice during that 10-game span, and before going down with the knee injury, he started off the 2016 campaign with just 50 rushing yards in 31 attempts. Peterson's putrid average of 1.6 yards per carry ranks as the worst in the NFL since 1970 for a player with at least 30 totes through the first two games of a season.
In a bottom-line business, it's hard to continue to lean on a player who's failing to produce at a high level, but the Vikings certainly felt obligated to continue to hand the ball off to a guy with three NFL rushing titles and a 2,000-yard season on the résumé. Last season, Peterson accounted 45.5 percent of the Vikings' offensive touches (the highest mark for an NFL player) and 29 percent of the team's scrimmage yards (also an NFL high). That's a lot of work for a running back over age 30 in a young man's league.
Now, I know I'm being a little hard on Peterson, and his supporters will point out that his mere presence on the field helps the rest of the Vikings' offense work, but the numbers and film don't support that argument. Defensive coordinators were not loading the box with eight-man fronts (or plus-1 schemes that position an extra defender near the line of scrimmage to defend the run) with No. 28 in the backfield. According to Next-Gen Stats, Peterson faced an eight-man box on only five offensive snaps in 2016. I know the eyeball test will lead to some disputes over those numbers, but the Vikings' tendency to use run-heavy sets with two or three tight ends in tight or clustered alignments clouds the evaluation. Those defensive fronts aren't necessarily "plus 1" schemes. Thus, Minnesota just didn't face as many loaded boxes as many anticipated with Peterson on the field.
Although the veteran back prefers to run from the "dot" position in an I-formation, the use of under-center sets or condensed formations doesn't play to the strengths of the Vikings' best offensive players: Sam Bradford and Stefon Diggs. This point is frequently overlooked with No. 28 on the field, but Minnesota's top weapons are most effective operating from spread formations with a shotgun snap. Bradford and Diggs excelled as collegians in spread offenses and they were most effective against the Packers when operating from open formations.
Looking at the All-22 tape, it was obvious Bradford was very comfortable directing the offense with the receivers in wide alignments across the field. The clever use of doubles (2x2), trips (3x1) and empty formations allowed the veteran signal caller to quickly sniff out the coverage and immediately get the ball into hands of his receivers on the perimeter. In addition, the space created by the spread alignments enabled Diggs to use his spectacular stop-start quickness and route-running skills to work away from coverage over the middle of the field. This led to Bradford compiling a 149.1 passer rating when targeting the Vikings' WR1 in the contest.
But the success of Bradford and Diggs is not a one-game aberration. Despite critics taking the Vikings to task for acquiring the oft-injured quarterback, Bradford has performed at a very high level going back to the middle of last season. Since November 2015, he has compiled a 68.5 percent completion rate (fourth-best in NFL in that span), an average of 280.6 passing yards per game, a 12:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 99.6 passer rating. Those numbers not only suggest that Bradford is a capable passer, but that he can carry an offense on the strength of his right arm.
Diggs is clearly entrenched as the Vikings' top receiver after posting back-to-back 100-yard games to start the season. He is an electric playmaker with outstanding hands and ball skills. In addition, he is a crafty route runner with a number of slick releases and stems that make him nearly impossible to cover on the perimeter. With opponents unable to effectively bracket or double-team Diggs, Minnesota quarterbacks have enjoyed outstanding success when targeting the second-year pro (completing 16 of 20 targets for 285 yards and a touchdown, with a 135.4 passer rating).
I know it's crazy to imagine the Vikings' attack humming without No. 28 playing a major role, but Peterson's diminishing production made it necessary to tweak the offensive approach regardless of whether he was injured or not.