Run Defense Set for Biggest Test Yet

Posted Dec 12, 2012

In each of the past two weeks, the Rams have faced a rushing offense ranked in the top four in the league.

First against San Francisco’s Frank Gore and then last week against Buffalo’s two-pronged attack in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, the Rams defense was up to the challenge and limited those attacks to minimal gains.

Coach Jeff Fisher was pleased with how his defense slowed down the run in both games.

“Everybody’s been contributing from the back end to (DT) Michael Brockers is improving, (DT) Kendall’s (Langford) playing good, the ends are playing solid, the linebackers are flowing,” Fisher said.

That’s all fine and dandy, according to Fisher but just because it’s been going well for two weeks doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate the next. That’s especially true because what awaits the Rams run defense this week is further advanced than even the past two weeks.

“We can’t look back and say, ‘Alright, we’re OK let’s just carry this into Minnesota,’” Fisher said. “This is a different animal completely.”

Namely, it’s different because the Vikings bring perhaps the most ferocious runner the game has seen in a long time in Adrian Peterson to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday afternoon.

The chore of trying to slow down the runaway freight train that is Peterson is difficult enough under normal circumstances but facing him right now might move the degree of difficulty to new heights. That he’s less than a year removed from an apparently devastating ACL injury makes his dominant season all the more amazing.

Fisher was around Chris Johnson when he went over the 2,000-yard mark in Tennessee and he doesn’t exactly have fond memories of facing Peterson, either.

“A few years ago we played Minnesota and I feel the same way now as I did then,” Fisher said, laughing. “It’s not easy. What he’s done specifically the last five weeks is just off the charts.”

In a distinguished career that’s seen Peterson post his share of big games, he’s never been on a tear like the one he’s riding as he comes to St. Louis.

After a two-game hiccup in which Peterson rushed for an average of 73 yards, he’s spent the past seven games running over, through and around every defense put in his way. In that seven-game stretch, Peterson is averaging 157.2 yards per game on 21.7 carries, an average of 7.2 yards per carry.

Asked if he’s ever seen a back running better than Peterson is right now, Langford can’t think of one.

“Probably not,” Langford said. “I mean, Chris Johnson had a heck of a year a few years ago but he is playing some good football right now. He’s running well, breaking tackles, breaking long runs. He looks liked he might be even better after surgery. He’s having a great year.”

With three games to go, Peterson finds himself firmly in the mix for the league’s Most Valuable Player award and within striking distance of some of the game’s most hallowed numbers for a running back.

For the season, Peterson has 1,600 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging a robust 6 yards per carry.

To put that in perspective, Peterson’s rushing total exceeds that of 23 teams in the league. He’s got a legitimate shot to get to 2,000 rushing yards and an outside shot to reach Eric Dickerson’s season record of 2,105.

In fact, that’s something Peterson has openly acknowledged is a goal of his this season and something he puts a lot of value on.

“It would mean a lot,” Peterson said. “I can tell you that because that’s a landmark. It’s been there for a long time and as a running back, you definitely want to break all the records. That’s how I look at it. It would mean a lot to me, but first things first: I’d rather get in the playoffs first than break any records. It feels good to be in a position to even go after it.”

For the better part of the past two weeks and really for the season, the Rams run defense has been solid. They held Gore to 58 yards on 23 carries then limited Spiller and Jackson to a combined 16 carries for 51 yards.

In that time, they’ve held steady at 13th in the league in run defense, allowing 110.3 yards per game.

The key to that success isn’t limited to any one thing. Most important, though, has been getting as many “hats in the frame” as possible. In other words, having everyone from every level run to the ball. Against a player like Peterson, that’s at the top of the list of importance, along with the usual keys.

“We are playing tough, we are playing gap sound, we are playing physical, those are a few things we have to keep doing for our run defense to continue to succeed,” linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said.
When playing a back like Peterson, perhaps nothing is more important than limiting the big plays. There’s a strong chance he’s going to get his yards, he may even go over 100 but it’s imperative to ensure he doesn’t get all of those yards at one time.

On the season, Peterson has five carries of 51 yards with all of those coming since Oct. 25. He also has 17 runs of 20 or more yards and 28 runs of 15 yards or more.

For their part, the Rams have allowed one 50-plus yard run (by San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick), nine runs of more than 20 yards (tied for 15th in the league) and 50 10-plus yard runs. Those numbers rank in the middle or near the bottom of the league so the Rams must find a way to limit those big gains this week.

“Anytime you are playing a good running back, you definitely want to limit their explosive runs,” Dunbar said. “Those are the killers so anytime you can keep him inside and get population around the ball, those things definitely help. Anytime you get one on one to tackle him, that’s when he usually breaks his long runs so it’s going to take a team effort to contain him.”

While containing Peterson is the only way to approach it defensively, Fisher does offer one solution in which Peterson can be a complete non-factor.

“Our key to defending Adrian Peterson is keeping (QB) Sam (Bradford) under center,” Fisher said. “That’s the only chance you’ve got is to keep him on the bench.”

The Vikings sit near the bottom of the league in time of possession but when they do get the ball and hold on to it, there’s a direct correlation with winning and losing.

In their two most recent losses, they had the ball for an average of just 22 minutes per game as Chicago and Green Bay controlled the clock and kept Peterson on the sideline. But when they win, they are usually closer to 28 minutes of possession and more.

In all but one of the Rams’ wins this year, they’ve had the ball for at least 28 minutes and they had it for more than 40 minutes in the tie against San Francisco. 

Adding to the importance of clock control, getting an early lead to try to make Minnesota pass more regularly is also quite beneficial.

When taking on a team like Minnesota with a back like Peterson, the best defense really is a good offense.

“It’s extremely important,” Bradford said. “We talked about it as an offense today…we know that it’s extremely important for us to maintain drives and convert on third downs. I think that’s obviously an area we’ve struggled on. For us to keep drives going, we have got to be good on third down this week.”