Keys to the Game Answered: Minnesota

Posted Dec 16, 2012

1. Yo, Adrian

THE KEY: In looking at the Vikings, there’s little doubt about where the game plan has to be focused: running back Adrian Peterson.

While Minnesota has plenty of talent on its roster, it’s Peterson that makes it all go and this year, he’s finding a way to put together one of the best seasons by a running back in NFL history.

In the past seven games, Peterson has averaged 157.2 yards per game while putting up an astounding 7.2 yards per carry. That production has bolstered Peterson into a stratosphere rarely visited by any running back in league history.

With 1,600 yards this season, Peterson is in striking distance of 2,000 yards and has made it known he’d like to catch Eric Dickerson’s season record of 2,105 rushing yards.

As a coach who has overseen a running back going for more than 2,000 yards, Jeff Fisher sees plenty of similarities between Peterson and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson.

“The key with the number itself – the 2,000 yards – it’s the big plays,” Fisher said. “That’s how you’re going to get there. C.J. had runs of 80 and 85, consistently. Week after week he was going the distance and that’s the same thing that A.P.’s doing right now. He’s a violent runner and he’s hard to bring down. Rarely do DBs get him down one-on-one and when they do he pats them on the back of the helmet and says congratulations. He’s fun to watch as long as you’re not preparing for him.”

The Rams are preparing for him and are well aware that to beat the Vikings, slowing Peterson down is the top priority. They enter Sunday’s game 13th in the league in run defense, giving up 110.3 yards per game but have been even better in recent weeks against the like of San Francisco’s Frank Gore and Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller.

It’s not likely that Peterson can be shut down completely but limiting his big runs and forcing the Vikings to throw more than they’d like would go a long way toward a Rams victory.

THE ANSWER: Exactly what the Rams hoped wouldn’t happen, happened twice as they slowed Peterson down to a reasonable level on 22 of his 24 carries. Unfortunately for the Rams, it was the other two carries where Peterson wrecked the game. He ripped off an 82-yard touchdown run in the first half and a 52-yarder late to help seal the game on his way to 212 yards.

2. Blocking Allen

THE KEY: While his nine sacks in 2012 trail well behind his pace of a year ago, Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen remains one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers.

In fact, over the past nine seasons, Allen’s 114 sacks ranks second only to Reggie White for most sacks in the first nine years of a career.

Allen posted 22 sacks in 2011, coming up just short of the NFL record and is still more than capable of wrecking an offensive game plan. In the last meeting of the Rams and Vikings in 2009, Allen returned a fumble 52 yards for a touchdown.

Left tackle Rodger Saffold is charged with the task of keeping Allen in check and their matchup Sunday figures to be one to watch in determining what the Rams offense can do.

“He’s got a great first step,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “He’s long, he’s relentless, he just plays extremely, extremely hard. He’s been doing it for a long time and he’s very smart, very instinctive…just a relentless pass rusher.”

THE ANSWER: Allen was only credited with one tackle and one quarterback hit but he was a nuisance all day, particularly in the first half. He drew at least two holding penalties and was otherwise in Bradford’s face a number of times.

3. Something to Ponder

THE KEY: Blessed with a back like Peterson and a running game like the Vikings’, quarterback Christian Ponder isn’t asked to take many risks in Minnesota’s offense.

For the most part, Ponder’s job is to take care of the ball, manage the game and make plays when the opportunity arises.

While that formula leaves the Vikings ranked last in the NFL in passing offense, it doesn’t mean that Ponder and Co. aren’t capable of making plays when needed, even without top receiving target Percy Harvin.

For the season, Ponder has thrown for 2,396 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a rating of 78.3.

But Ponder seems to be at his best late in games and limits his mistakes in those situations. He also provides the ability to scramble and escape pressure.

“He’s making good decisions,” Fisher said. “He’s keeping drives alive on third down. When you’re so committed to stopping that run, it makes his job a little bit easier getting the ball down the field. He’s got a favorite target in the tight end. He can make the big throws. The little ‘rook’ from Arkansas is running through coverage and he can make the deep throw.”

Clearly, any team playing the Vikings would prefer to make them one-dimensional with the pass and put the game in Ponder’s hands. That’s easier said than done though as Minnesota has allowed just 28 sacks this year.

If the Rams can get Minnesota to throw it around a little more than usual and force an error, it would be a big step toward their fourth win in a row.

THE ANSWER: With Peterson doing his things, the Vikings smartly worked in play action passes and allowed Ponder to make some plays with his legs. He finished 17-of-24 for 131 yards with a rushing touchdown and, most important, no turnovers.

4. The Best Defense…

THE KEY: It’s cliché but sometimes the best defense can be a good offense, especially when you are playing against a dynamic back like Peterson.

That’s why it’s important for the Rams to find ways to grind the clock and turn up the run game again this week after a couple of pedestrian performances.

Minnesota is ranked 14th in the league against the run, allowing 115.3 yards per game on the ground.

The Rams are 16th in rush offense, putting up 112.2 yards per game on the ground.

Running back Steven Jackson is closing in on some important milestones in his career and he’d love to get those before the home crowd in the Edward Jones Dome’s 2012 finale but just as important is getting first downs and eating the clock so Peterson doesn’t get as many chances.

“That’s probably the biggest job I have this weekend is keeping the chains moving, making sure that I’m effective in the run game and that we keep him on the sideline,” Jackson said. “We all have a great deal of respect for what he’s doing and we marvel at it and acknowledge it all week but we have business to take care of.”

THE ANSWER: Jackson and the Rams had some success running early but a disastrous four minutes sent them into the locker room down 23 points and needing to throw to get back in the game. They ended up with 87 yards on just 18 carries and lost the time of possession battle by about 30 seconds, not exactly keeping Peterson on the sideline.

5. Third Down, First Priority

THE KEY: For the majority of the past two games, the Rams have struggled to find traction offensively until late in games.

A big part of the reason for that was a struggle to convert on third down, a statistic that has regularly worked against the Rams in their losses and in their favor in the team’s victories.

Last week’s game against Buffalo provided a perfect dichotomy as the Rams went just two-of-eight on third down in the first half when they didn’t score and followed it up with a five-of-nine effort in the second half as well as a key fourth down conversion when they scored both of their touchdowns.

This week, converting on third down takes on added importance for the reasons listed above in keeping Peterson off the field.

“I think it starts on third down,” Bradford said. “When you don’t convert third downs, you don’t give yourself a chance to establish drives and you don’t put yourself in a position to score touchdowns. In order to score touchdowns, you’ve got to get down to the money zone, and that’s just something that we haven’t done. Last week, we got down there twice and scored two touchdowns, but when you don’t get down there, you just don’t give yourself enough opportunities to score.”

THE ANSWER: It was another long day for the Rams on third downs as they converted just three of 13 opportunities. Making matters worse, they were just one-of-three on fourth down as well.