Amidst all the discussion we've seen about where Adrian Peterson ranks or what awards he is eligible for, we don't discuss often enough why "All Day" Peterson is as dominant as he is. Exceeding any other runner in the NFL by at least 430 yards, Peterson is clearly the most dominant back of 2012.
There are four runs in 2012 that set Peterson apart from the rest of his peers, and they are pretty simple to break down.
It's a draw up the middle, without a lot of complicated blocking assignments. Over 90 percent of Peterson's plays early in the season were between the tackles, presumably so that he didn't have to test his knees, and this is no different.
There isn't much here that you don't see out of hundreds of other draw plays in terms of pure production, but there are a few things here that already separate him from the pack.
The first is Peterson's ability to disguise his intentions—he can make defenders hesitate or guess all day about what he'll do before he ends up making a decision or committing to a lane.
Here, he uses both his eyes and his hips to force resurgent Jacksonville linebacker Paul Posluszny (whose 2012 has unfortunately not matched his surprising 2011 season) to hesitate for half a second too long, even though there's only one real hole Peterson would go through on the play.
At the mesh point, his eyes were looking to his left (Posluszny's right) and he looked up the middle of the field for well over a second before breaking to his right (Posluszny's left) and gaining 19 yards. At the same time, he kept his hips low and sunk them slightly right before he broke right, making it difficult to read the direction of his run until he burst through the seam created by Brandon Fusco and Kyle Rudolph.
It only freezes the Jaguars linebacker for a second, but it's long enough for Peterson to find the room he needs to get out to the edge. Posluszny looks to take a bad angle, but at that point, there isn't a good angle to take and still get the tackle.
The second reason this play is fascinating is the context. It might belabor the point to emphasize how absurd Peterson's recovery is, but given that nearly every running back in history has suffered a loss in production and yardage the first year after a major knee injury that occurred during the season, Peterson's ability to generate yardage and burst on his first game back is incredible.
Not only that, Peterson plants off his left foot to break right, putting stress on the very ligaments that he had surgery on not nine months earlier. He did this without having played in a full contact practice or in the preseason game, meaning he was running at full speed with real hits for the first time in a live game situation, and put up 4.9 yards a carry (2.5 after contact).
The run itself is somewhat normal, especially for an elite back like Peterson. The context; however, gives it a whole new meaning.
The second run is a lot more explosive and exciting. The first of two 82-yard runs that Peterson's broken off is his romp over the Packers that solidified his spot as the top running back of the season.
Notably, the fact that he's running outside the tackles indicates that the Vikings have already decided that the risk to his knees from over- or under-balancing is a thing of the past. His ability to move outside or go up the middle makes him a more versatile back than people give him credit for, and a complete running game like this makes gap integrity difficult to maintain for defenses.
The play starts as a simple sweep with a pulling right guard (this time, it's Geoff Schwartz); nothing that warrants deception or anything more than power at the line.
Kyle Rudolph peels off to make a block on Packers safety Morgan Burnett, but can't get to him in time to block. As Burnett approaches the running back, a small burst of acceleration by Peterson gives the defender a poor angle. At the same time, the All-Pro running back stiffens up and changes the angle of attack for the Packers safety before leaning forward and sinking his hips to break the tackle.
Naturally, he churns his legs the entire time, keeping his knees high.
While he does that, M.D. Jennings has a good angle and even has space enough to break down his tackle, lower his hips and deliver a good form take down. Unfortunately for him, Peterson is already planning on breaking the tackle by eliminating Jennings' leverage.
Instead of stiff-arming—something Peterson can do well and often—he brings his arm up inside the tackle. By bringing his folded arm up at the last second, he does a few things. The first is that he can keep his arm underneath or at the same level as the wrapping arm of the safety, allowing Peterson to push the offending arm over the top (breaking the tackle by forcing Jennings too high) or moving it out of the way.
The second effect is to change the distance Jennings' arm has to travel to find purchase, with the safety's hand trying to find a collar, the opposite shoulder or even a good part of the jersey to grab. But with Peterson's arm in his chest, he has less room to work with, and therefore less leverage.
At this point, Peterson simply pushes Jennings back and rumbles forward for the next 60 or so yards to the end zone. Jennings barely stood a chance when tackling that high. It helps that he flat-out outran defensive back Tramon Williams.
In this next run, Peterson shows that some of his dominance as a runner comes from his ability to teleport.
Kidding aside, the superhuman things he was capable of accomplishing on this run comes from a combination of skills that several running backs have, even if they don't have as much of it.
There aren't very many complicated things happening with this gain. Peterson lowers his head at the point of contact in order to give himself more momentum and change his profile to would-be tacklers, then flows right to open space when given the chance. Later, he punishes Redskins defensive back DeAngelo Hall for trying to tackle him at the waist.
His change-of-direction skills are prodigious, but are better encapsulated on this run.
What's a bit shocking about this play is that he has his hips and shoulders completely turned out before quickly cutting inside. The vast majority of running backs cannot execute a cut at a right angle to their hips (most one-cut zone runners are taught to keep their hips open to the backside cut until they commit to a hole because of this limitation).
It only takes one step from his right foot to fully change direction, but most defenders are out of place given how they read the play. It's a powerful step that most running backs can't take, and the fact that Peterson accelerates to nearly full speed within two steps of the cut is astonishing.
After rocketing out of the hole as if shot out of a cannon, he stops on a dime and stutters as if to step out again. Without changing direction and only slowing down, he forces Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington to commit to the outside before falling down.
By turning his shoulders, he made another defender miss before contact and only improves from there. After safety James Sanders finds him, he is no longer in a position to sink his body weight to avoid the tackle, so he uses power instead of agility to gain extra yardage.
Without good leverage—both one of his knees and both of his shoulders are far forward the center of gravity—he pushes off his back foot to set up a powerful stride with his left leg. Leaning forward not to brace for a blow but to generate momentum (part of the "downhill running" tag assigned to so many rushers), he relies on the sheer strength of his lower body to get extra yardage.
This lean does set him up to take the poor hit by safety Adrian Wilson; however, and he maintains his prodigious balance long enough to set his sights on the end zone. Stretching out to get the score is fairly normal at this point, but the process to get there was unique.
Combining both agility and power, Peterson was able to run through one of the best defenses in football in order to grab a touchdown, critical in the Vikings' game against the Cardinals.
Peterson's upper body strength, lower body strength and pure speed make him a dangerous runner in the NFL, but his agility, attention to detail and instinctive use of technique make him an elite runner in the National Football League. With a natural talent for executing complex techniques, generating leverage and superior body control, he makes the job of bringing him down all the more difficult. This nearly complete running package complements his surprisingly cerebral running style, which allows him to use defenders' tendencies against themselves while he looks off or changes his approach.
Peterson likely doesn't have the type of field intelligence that made Marshall Faulk such a threat, and his lower body strength doesn't match bruisers like Michael Turner or Maurice Jones-Drew, he still has a full package of running ability that allows him to outpace the superior speed of Chris Johnson or agility of LeSean McCoy.
There are a lot of individual assets where Peterson might rank second or third, but his overall capability is second to none. Vikings fans are lucky to see a living legend in action.