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Pete Dougherty column: Secondary's primary duty is to contain Peterson

Jan. 3, 2013
 
Adrian Peterson
Adrian Peterson
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All five of the NFL’s top-scoring teams have premier quarterbacks: New England’s Tom Brady, Denver’s Peyton Manning, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.

Four are in the playoffs, and New England and Denver are the favorites to win the Super Bowl. It’s safe to say the NFL is a passing league.

That’s what has made the Minnesota Vikings a tough matchup down the stretch this season. They have this generation’s best running back, and maybe one of the handful of great backs all-time, who at age 27 is at the height of his powers: In five games over the month of December, Adrian Peterson set an NFL record for rushing yards in a month (861), and the Vikings went 4-1 in those games.

NFL defenses are built to deal with the likes of Brady, Manning and Rodgers. Teams covet pass rushers and need a linebacker or two who can run with increasingly athletic tight ends. At defensive back, they draft cornerbacks almost wholly for their skills in coverage and safeties with a far greater emphasis on pass defense than stopping the run.

But because of Peterson’s singular running this season, the Vikings more than any other team force pass defenders to become run defenders down after down.

“If they know what they’re doing running the ball, all 11 guys are going to have to play run defense,” said Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator, on Thursday. “(The defensive backs) just have to know how they fit in, when they’re primary support and when they’re secondary support. In different (defensive calls) they’re more involved than they are in others. And you have to be disciplined and not let them hit a big (pass) play over the top because you lose your focus and discipline.”

Anyone who follows these teams knows Peterson has abused the Packers twice this season, once with 210 yards in defeat, and once with 199 yards in victory. In one sense, the difference was the Vikings’ second-year quarterback, Christian Ponder, who threw two red-zone interceptions in the Packers’ win Dec. 2 but threw a couple key completions combined with no turnovers in the Vikings’ victory last week.

But if Peterson is as dominant in Saturday night’s wild-card playoff game as he was last week, the Packers’ season probably will end. Ponder appears to have learned a big lesson from that loss at Lambeau — he’s thrown only one interception in the four games, all wins, since — but it wouldn’t matter if Peterson weren’t wearing out defenses and keeping drives alive against schemes designed to stop him. Ponder’s not near the point where he’s winning games with his playmaking.

We can only imagine the attention Capers and his coaching staff have been paying Peterson this week in game-planning sessions and position meetings. It’s likely been obsessive.

“I can’t put a yardage on it,” Capers said of what would constitute a good day against Peterson, “but I think we know how to do it. He just tests your discipline. We had an awful lot of good 1-, 2-, 3-yard plays. But we had too many of those that came out of there for 18, 20 yards. With him, the margin for error is not very great.”

The Packers have made the defensive jump they were looking for when general manager Ted Thompson selected defensive players with his first six draft picks in 2012. They went from No. 19 in points allowed season to No. 11 this year; from No. 32 in yards allowed to No. 11; from No. 32 in passing yards allowed to No. 11; and from No. 9 in opponent passer rating to No. 4.

The main reason is their secondary. Second-round pick Casey Hayward has been one of their best two or three defensive players and an upgrade at the nickel slot over 36-year-old Charles Woodson, who’s now a safety. Hayward probably is the leading candidate for NFL defensive rookie of the year. ProFootballFocus.com, which grades the video of every NFL game, went further by giving him not only that award but naming him first-team All-Pro.

Cornerback Tramon Williams has come back from the nerve injury in his shoulder last season to have a strong year. Sam Shields came on at the other starting cornerback as the season went on and played at least as well as his rookie season. Davon House provided another viable option at cornerback when injuries hit.

Morgan Burnett remains an ascending player in his third season at safety. Even fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian, though erratic in his assignments, brought some quick-twitch athletic talent that was missing last year.

The Packers’ tackling improved substantially, mainly because of improved athleticism from the personnel turnover. Last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, the Packers had the sixth-most missed tackles in the NFL with 109. This season, they had the third fewest with 65, behind only Houston (63) and Denver (64).

Williams had 16 missed tackles last season, and only six this year; Shields dropped from 10 to three; and Woodson had 16 last season to Hayward’s three this year, though Hayward was a full-time player for only the last 91/2games. Burnett was the only player to have more, from nine last season to 11 this year.

Still, defending Peterson is far more difficult than any other back they’ve faced this season.

The Packers have had good play from defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett all season. They haven’t been the problem vs. the Vikings.

But in last week’s regular-season finale, outside linebackers Clay Matthews, Erik Walden and Dezman Moses lost contain too often by pursuing too quickly on middle runs. Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph also blocked Matthews better than any tight end this year.

Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, like a lot of NFL linebackers, couldn’t keep up when Peterson bounced outside.

And in the secondary, Williams had more than his share of bad plays because he didn’t aggressively squeeze alleys. The NFL’s good run-stopping cornerbacks, such as Woodson and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield, fill aggressively and at least take out their blockers early, which limits a back’s ability to get outside.

The Packers, in fact, appear to be counting on Woodson’s return at safety to make them a more physical defense Saturday night.

“Most of tackling is want-to,” said Joe Whitt, the Packers’ cornerbacks coach. “I don’t know Winfield at all, but what I hear about him is he’s a tough guy. Woodson’s a tough guy and he wants to go do it. It’s rare where you find a corner like Woodson that can cover as good as he’s covered over his career and tackled.”

A look at the NFL’s top rushing seasons suggests history might be on the Packers’ side. Peterson has had one of the NFL’s all-time seasons for any player at any position, but even the best backs in their best seasons have had great difficulty carrying a team deep into the playoffs.

Of the 15 top rushing seasons by running backs not including Peterson this year, only four advanced past the first round of the playoffs: Denver’s Terrell Davis (2,008 yards) won the Super Bowl in the 1998 season; the Packers’ Ahman Green (1,883 yards) lost in the divisional round in 2003; Seattle’s Shaun Alexander (1,880 yards) lost the Super Bowl in 2005; and Atlanta’s Jamal Anderson (1,852 yards) lost the Super Bowl in 1998.

It’s no coincidence that Davis also had an all-time great quarterback in John Elway, even if Elway was 38. Green had a future Hall of Famer at quarterback in Brett Favre. Though the Seahawks didn’t have a great quarterback, they had a good one in Matt Hasselbeck. Atlanta QB Chris Chandler had a career year (100.2 passer rating) in ’98.

Seven of the 15 top single-season rushers lost in the first round of the playoffs, and four others (Buffalo’s O.J. Simpson in 1973, Tennessee’s Chris Johnson in 2009, Miami’s Ricky Williams in 2002 and Cleveland’s Jim Brown in 1963) didn’t qualify for the postseason.

The Vikings more closely resemble Eric Dickerson’s 1984 Los Angeles Rams. That’s the season Dickerson set the all-time record of 2,105 yards. His quarterback was journeyman Jeff Kemp (78.7 passer rating). The Rams’ defense ranked No. 13 in points allowed, No. 14 in yards allowed, and No. 19 in defensive passer rating.

Those Rams went 10-6 and then lost their wild-card game to the New York Giants, 16-13.

The Vikings, like those Rams, are an average defense (tied for No. 14 in points, No. 16 in yards and No. 25 in defensive passer rating). Ponder’s 81.2 rating ranks No. 21 in the NFL.

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