When Adrian Peterson broke the very first offensive snap of 2013 for a 78-yard touchdown run right through the heart of the Detroit Lions defense, it sure looked ominous. It looked so easy; AD was barely touched and never had to break stride on his way to the distant end zone.
After that run, however, the Detroit Lions did a masterful job of bottling up Peterson. He gained just 15 yards on his remaining 17 carries.
For proper context, let's look at Peterson's triumphant first carry.
The Minnesota Vikings are in 21 personnel, with H-back Rhett Ellison in front of Peterson in the I-formation. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is in line, flanking left tackle. Wideout Greg Jennings motions across the formation and lines up tight on the opposite side.
The Lions are lined up in a position to succeed with eight defenders in the box. The problem occurs when the entire Lions front sucks too easily to where the Vikings want them to go, which is towards the short sideline.
With everyone flowing that way, it opens an isolation block for Ellison on LB and a huge cutback lane right in front of Peterson.
Now the only player with any chance at stopping Peterson is corner Darius Slay, who motioned across the formation with Jennings and is in solid position to make an open-field tackle.
Unfortunately, the rookie is no match for Adrian Peterson. AD makes a nice cut and does the football equivalent of the ankle-breaking crossover dribble. From there, it's off to the races.
After that breakdown, the Lions clamped down on Peterson. Here's how they did it.
On Peterson's second carry of the next drive, the Vikings are in 11 personnel. They have swapped out the lead blocker in the backfield for an extra wideout in hopes of stretching the Lions defense. Note that the Lions remain in their base 4-3 defense by having safety Glover Quin cover the slot receiver instead of bringing in a nickelback.
Quin's versatility allows the Lions an extra presence in the box to help swarm Peterson and overwhelm the blocking. The Lions are essentially daring Christian Ponder to attack down the field, but the Vikings stick with the run.
On this play, tackles Nick Fairley (No. 98) and Ndamukong Suh (No. 90) both defeat their blockers and avoid getting caught with the flow. Back-side end Willie Young (No. 79) is in a strong containment position, while outside linebacker Ashlee Palmer (No. 50) has a clean path to meet Peterson at the edge.
Palmer attacks around the edge, which forces Peterson to double back—right into Suh, who is directly in his path. Note that Young is disciplined and balanced in containment, ready to pounce should Palmer miss the tackle. He doesn't; Palmer wraps up Peterson for a two-yard loss.
In the second quarter, the Vikings go back to adding an extra blocker, this time in the form of tight end John Carlson. Minnesota brings the wideouts in tight, which the Lions correctly decipher as a run formation.
Because the wideouts are lined in tight, safety Glover Quin (No. 27, highlighted) inserts himself into the box and is essentially a fourth linebacker. The Vikings have nobody to account for Quin because TE Kyle Rudolph pulls across the formation
Quin has a clean path to meet Peterson just as he gets the ball, in part because AD is lined up unusually deep in the formation. This play is designed to allow Peterson the option to attack either the B or C gaps on the right side. Quin quickly deciphers the intent when Rudolph, his coverage assignment, pulls away. That frees Quin to attack Peterson, and he drops him for a four-yard loss.
The Vikings returned to the same formation for the very first run for Peterson's first carry of the second half, with Ellison lined up at fullback and Peterson deep in the I formation. Wideout Greg Jennings motions halfway across the formation and settles in almost directly behind the left tackle at the snap.
On the first carry, the safety to Jennings' side stayed deep. This time, Louis Delmas lines up tight to the defensive end and has a two-way go based on where Jennings tries to block him. If Jennings comes from inside, Delmas can loop around the end, while if Jennings goes outside the formation, Delmas has a clear path inside.
At the snap, both right defensive end Willie Young and right defensive tackle Nick Fairley immediately gain the upper hand on their respective blockers.
Young knifes inside left tackle Matt Kalil, who was a half-count late off the snap, while Fairley blows right through left guard Charlie Johnson. LDT Ndamukong Suh is taking on two blockers, which keeps the patient linebackers free to read and react quickly.
As the play continues, Fairley is free to blow up the lead blocker well behind the line. Young has shut off any bounce to Peterson's left. Because Jennings looped outside to attempt to block Delmas, the safety quickly darts inside and has an unblocked shot at Peterson at the line of scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Charlie Johnson has to choose between two linebackers to block. He goes after the inside 'backer, which leaves DeAndre Levy with another unblocked path right at Peterson.
The two Lions converge on Peterson just beyond the line of scrimmage. Peterson's strength and momentum net him a two-yard gain before Levy plants him into the turf.
Had Levy somehow missed the tackle, corner Darius Slay (just out of the screen here) was in perfect position—and better balanced this time around—to clean up the play.
Detroit made a conscious decision that taking one safety from deeper coverage responsibility and adding him into the box was worth the risk. Quin and Delmas both served as fourth linebackers for most of the game after the first drive. They didn't respect Christian Ponder's deep ball.
Even when the Vikings used a three-wideout set, the Lions often kept their base defense on the field, trusting that Delmas or Quin could handle man coverage on the slot.
The Vikings made a few plays against that look. Ponder scrambled for a third-down conversion once, and he hit Jennings and Jerome Simpson to the inside of the corners where the safety would normally patrol a couple of times.
But selling out against Peterson worked.
It helped tremendously that Fairley, Suh and Young consistently beat their blockers right off the snap. Fairley and/or Young were often right in front of Peterson and past their blockers when Peterson took the handoff.
On this play, Fairley and Young have pushed their blockers two yards deep into the backfield before Peterson has the ball, while Suh ripped past his man and is closing quickly on the back side. LDE Jason Jones (No. 91) has also defeated his man and has an inside path to close off any cutback lane once Peterson takes the run to the outside. Darius Slay and Ashlee Palmer are free from blockers at the next level.
Peterson still manages to get around the edge, but Slay has a shot at him right at the line. The rookie corner gets enough of Peterson's feet to trip him up, while Palmer and Delmas both were free from blockers to clean it up had Peterson kept his footing.
This play gained five yards on 2nd-and-11, forcing 3rd-and-long. That's a victory for the defense.
It's not easy to corral the best running back in the game today. The Lions did so thanks to excellent defensive line play, adding an extra linebacker by bringing up a safety, and keeping three linebackers in the game even against three wideout formations. They even brought in a real fourth linebacker in Rocky McIntosh when the Vikings went to 22 personnel.
Staying disciplined and not overreacting to the action is imperative. The linebackers were patient and poised, doing as good a job as possible of keeping square to Peterson and eliminating options for the runner. Even one little mistake and Peterson can blow past everyone for a huge play.
This was as well-conceived and executed of a defensive game plan as we've seen from the Lions in a long time. Kudos to Gunther Cunningham and his defensive staff for this one.