The Cardinals acquired future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson on Tuesday. It’s not difficult to see why Arizona general manager, Steve Keim, decided to pursue Peterson. After David Johnson’s injury, the combination of Kerwynn Williams and Chris Johnson averaged a lousy 2.3 yards per attempt combined.
The question is does Peterson have anything left? It’s no secret that running backs age quicker than other positions, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Peterson’s production has been dwindling. It’s also not ground breaking to suggest that the Vikings offensive line during Peterson’s final years was unsatisfactory. However, the Cardinals offensive line faces their own struggles. They currently rank 30th in Football Outsiders adjusted line yards metric. Furthermore, Arizona running backs have averaged 0.61 yards before contact. That’s the lowest in the NFL.
Can Adrian Peterson salvage the Cardinals rushing offense? Let’s review his first four games in 2017 to view his strengths and weaknesses.
Sean Payton might have a complex passing game, but his rushing attack is straight forward. The Saints have similar run concepts to most of the league. The inside zone is one of their staple concepts.
The Saints are in 12 personnel (2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB) against the Vikings base 4-3 defense. They motion Michael Thomas across the formation in an attempt to dictate the gaps. The Vikings strong side defensive end collapses into the backfield, but Peterson does well to avoid him and search for yards. Peterson showcases his upper and lower body strength on this run. Despite being touched near the line of scrimmage, Peterson carries multiple defenders for a nine yard gain. This is a vintage Adrian Peterson carry.
Peterson’s lackadaisical production out of shotgun is well chronicled. This run, though, shows that he could be valuable in certain situations. The Saints are in the red zone in 11 personnel ( 3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) vs Carolina’s base 4-3 defense. With Drew Brees being a huge threat inside the red zone, the Panthers show confusion before the snap. Brees pump fakes the screen, which gets the linebackers moving in the opposite direction of the draw. Peterson receives the ball, bounces it outside, and shows off a nice stiff arm.
These next two runs display Peterson’s effectiveness running between the tackles. The first carry is an inside zone. The Saints had a numbers advantage against the defense. Peterson’s ability to jump cut shows that he still has some of his unique skill set. He carries multiple defenders for a nice gain on 1st down. The next run is a standard power out of a single back formation. Peterson follows the pulling guard and he’s able to get skinny through the small crease to convert a 1st down.
Adrian Peterson does not provide much value catching the ball. Therefore, it’s likely that when he is on the field he is carrying the football. It’s imperative for the offense to have the numbers advantage in the box. At Peterson’s age, he isn’t going to make many defenders miss.
Despite making a nifty jump cut, Peterson’s rushing lanes are blocked. He remains a strong runner, but he isn’t quite the elusive runner he used to be.
This time the Saints have the numbers advantage. Furthermore, the Patriots defensive line abandon the A gaps, which means that there should be an opening if the blocks are executed.
The Saints, once again, are running an inside zone. The guard and center approach the linebackers to get a hat (block) on them. Every defender in the box is accounted for and there’s a hole to exploit.
While the initial crease does close down a bit, Peterson’s hesitation does not serve him well. Earlier in his career, Peterson would have went downhill with more authority. He has shown that he can get skinny through the smallest holes, so it was surprising to see him elect not to hit it. However, his indecision caused him to bounce it outside and it resulted in a minimal gain.
Peterson’s vision has been one of his strengths over his career. It was curious to watch his 2017 season and notice him missing run keys. The Saints are running another inside zone. Peterson has to realize that the tight end is going to be isolated on the edge rusher. On an inside zone run, the running back has to follow the playside guard’s hip.
Peterson attempts a jump cut to bounce the run outside. The center and guard reach the second level linebackers. Peterson had a nice crease available to him. He chose the wrong option and the run went nowhere.
Peterson’s 2017 fit in Arizona
The Cardinals present an ideal fit for Peterson’s skill set. He is not known for running the ball out of shotgun. He only has 135 career rushing attempts from shotgun or pistol according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. In addition, Peterson averages more yards per carry under center than in shotgun. In 2016, the Cardinals ran the ball only 8.4% of the time when the quarterback was in shotgun. That was the lowest rate in the league according to Football Outsiders 2017 Almanac. With Andre Ellington in the fold, it makes sense that Arizona designates Peterson as the primary ball carrier on 1st and 2nd down while Ellington handles 3rd down duties.
Given the history of aging running backs and the struggles of Arizona’s offensive line, the prospects of an Adrian Peterson rejuvenation seem low. On the contrary, the Cardinals have to search for ways to improve their rushing offense. Peterson’s cost was low, so it carries small risk that could pay off.