Here we are in Week 6, surprisingly hopeful fans of a 1-5 Detroit Lions team. One win over a lackluster Chicago Bears team, and now we're turning a collective eye toward the favorable rest of the schedule and thinking maybe, just maybe, the Lions might be able to turn this season around. Feels like the Lions are in a real trick-or-treat scenario right now; sure, they could hypothetically go on a run here, but that run could be dismantled as soon as Sunday against a Minnesota Vikings team that waged its own personal spooktacular against Matthew Stafford back in Week 2.
It seems stupid to feel optimistic, but I am a stupid person. Let's talk about the Vikings and the son of Odin who resides in the team's backfield.
This season, Adrian Peterson is averaging 4.3 yards per carry on 101 attempts—a bit below his normal clip (and a far cry from his monstrous 2012 season), but still respectable enough. However, the way in which he has accumulated those yards hasn't been as Peterson-esque as you might expect. Rather than steadily taking chunks of yardage and eroding defenses' will to live, Peterson has been more of a boom-or-bust back: six of his carries have accounted for more than 40 percent of his yardage. Take those attempts away, and his numbers drop to 2.7 yards per carry on 95 attempts. Through five games, "All Day" has been more like "Only at Specified Times."
Not all of this is on Peterson—the Vikings have been without starting RT Phil Loadholt and C John Sullivan for the entire season. Lack of continuity always hurts offensive lines, but so does lack of talent. At the same time, though, Peterson hasn't been exactly trucking defenders and leaving them in shallow graves; he's currently averaging 2.07 yards after contact per attempt, which puts him 22nd out of 27 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus. Minnesota's offensive line isn't getting great push, and AP isn't abusing would-be tacklers in one-on-one situations, which means that when teams stay sound and maintain gap integrity in the run game, they're able to do a better job holding the Vikings to minimum gains on the ground.
Peterson takes the ball on a shotgun power run on this play. And first off, kudos to Jermelle Cudjo (No. 99) for getting incredible penetration off the snap against Joe Berger (moved from LG to start in Sullivan's place), even if he isn't able to get to the ball carrier. Tyrunn Walker stands up his double-team, and Josh Bynes does an excellent job filling the hole and taking on another. This leaves Darius Slay, James Ihedigbo, and Stephen Tulloch to stay free and clear and cover any avenues from left to right across the screen:
All of this is standard practice for successful run defense, but against a back as talented as Peterson, it's doubly important. If defensive linemen and linebackers can plug the A, B, and (occasionally) C gaps, it allows outside defenders to stay clear on the edges and prevent plays from spilling outside:
So, that's all there is to it, guys. Have a good weekend!
... Oh, right. Those aforementioned long runs. About those.
Peterson has always possessed an inhuman combination of speed and power. As we've covered here, he hasn't necessarily displayed all that much of the latter this season, but hoo boy, does he still have the former.
Teams can maintain good gap integrity and shut down Peterson's inside running lanes for long periods of time. But once your front seven gets bunched up at the line, once a cornerback or an outside linebacker has to cheat inside to fill on a run play, ya burnt.
Just about every conceivable thing goes wrong for the Lions on this play. When both of your defensive tackles get put to the ground off the snap, a play probably isn't going to go well. But things just compound themselves here. With Walker and Gabe Wright incapacitated, linemen are free to get to the second level to Tulloch and Bynes. Bynes, for his part, puts forth a superhuman effort and actually sheds his blocker to stay in his gap. However, because Daryl Tapp gets ridden deep around the edge so far, Slay is forced to come hard inside to account for a massive hole in the C gap. Once that happens, Peterson is off to the races.
Whether on the playside or backside, those massive holes virtually eradicated any hope of outside contain on Slay's part.
The Vikings run an inside zone to the A gap out of the I-formation here. By the time Peterson gets to the line of scrimmage, no less than six Lions defenders have been washed playside, leaving enormous cutback lanes. And again, when Slay comes inside to try to fill that backside hole, all Peterson has to do is bounce outside and shed a tackle attempt from a cornerback. He might not entirely look like his old self, but he's still more than able to do that.
If you're looking for reasons to be either optimistic or pessimistic about this matchup, you have plenty of ammunition. Peterson hasn't looked like his old self, but he's shown flashes, and perhaps he's still getting his legs under him. The Vikings are missing crucial pieces of the offensive line, but the Lions might be starting a Caraun Reid/Andre Fluellen tandem at DT on Sunday. Teams have been able to largely contain Peterson to this point in the season, but the Lions were not one of those teams. The game is in Detroit on Sunday, but so was the biggest debacle of the season. Who knows. But, for some reason, I feel good about it.
[h/t to Alex Reno, as always, for the statistics used in this piece]