The Denver Broncos are undefeated this year, and they return home in Week 4 to take on the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota lost their first game of the year, on the road against the San Franciso 49ers, but they’ve won their last two games at home and have a 2-1 record.
A big reason why they’ve won their last two games is superstar running back Adrian Peterson. He currently leads the NFL in rushing with 291 yards in three games. Peterson was eased into action against the 49ers, but he’s run wild over the last two weeks—both Vikings wins.
Head coach Gary Kubiak knows the team has their hands full this week.
“We had better tackle well as a team. That's the biggest thing," Kubiak explained. "It's going to be a team effort to find a way to get him down. He's the best in the business, has been for a long time and we know that he's going to touch it. We had better have everybody rallying to the football.”
How can the Broncos slow down Peterson in this matchup against the Vikings? Let’s take a look.
Defensive Line Stands Strong
The first line of defense is up front. The defensive linemen should snare Peterson if he comes within arm's reach. However, most of their job up front is going to be keeping Peterson away from the sidelines and turned back inside toward the rest of the defense. This is called “keeping containment” and it’s imperative the Broncos do that consistently on Sunday.
One of the best players on the line is defensive end Malik Jackson. He plays with good strength and aggression. Jackson plays to the echo of the whistle, and he arrives at the ball-carrier with natural violence. If he can stay disciplined on the edge, it will help the Broncos defense greatly.
Jackson knows the rush defense starts with him and his fellow defensive linemen.
“I think it's our job to make sure he doesn't get to the second level," Jackson said. "I think it's one of those things where we're going to game-plan for him and we're going to do what we do. We've got some good inside linebackers with [ILB] Danny [Trevathan] and [ILB] Brandon [Marshall] and with [ILB] Todd [Davis] coming in there.”
Jackson continued, “Each week presents a challenge. We're just going to keep working. This week it's A.P., so I think we'll find a way to do what we need to do.”
The defensive line doesn’t have to tackle Peterson, but they do need to make sure that he can’t get to the outside where he can sprint away for a big play.
Linebackers Clean Up the Second Level
If Peterson gets to the second level of the defense, then the linebackers must bring him down quickly. After three weeks, Peterson ranks fourth in the NFL in yards after contact (129).
The Broncos have a talented group of linebackers in the middle of the field who will be tasked with stuffing Peterson upon arrival. Brandon Marshall plays like a jackhammer, and he’s not afraid to mix things up near the line of scrimmage. Danny Trevathan is not the thumper that Marshall is, but he’s a sound tackler who will consistently wrap up.
Marshall will be ready for the challenge.
“He’s a huge challenge," Marshall noted. "Arguably the best running back in the league and very hard to tackle. He breaks a lot of tackles, he’s fast, he’s quick and explosive.”
Marshall explained, “He’s just a guy that we have to swarm tackle. We have to run our feet when we hit him. He’s a guy we have to tackle with a lot of aggression. You’ve got to tackle with a lot of aggression because if you try to hit him soft, he’s going to bounce off you.”
Below is a series of pictures from last week’s Vikings-San Diego Chargers game. On the day, Peterson rushed for 126 yards on 20 carries and scored two rushing touchdowns. However, on this play the Chargers held Peterson for a two-yard gain.
Before the snap, notice the unbalanced formation by the Vikings. The Chargers counter that look by sliding the defensive linemen over right before the play starts:
As Peterson takes the handoff, you can see how keeping containment on the outside is vital. Peterson is forced back inside where two players are crashing in on him:
This final shot shows contain on the outside, two defenders coming at Peterson and a third who was able to shed the tight end and flow to the ball-carrier quickly. Even with the Chargers playing this perfectly, Peterson was able to charge for a small gain:
The Broncos will need similar discipline when facing Peterson on Sunday, but unlike the Chargers they need to maintain it throughout the entire contest.
Strong Safety Support
The Broncos have one of the best in the league in strong safety T.J. Ward. Against the Vikings and their limited passing attack, we’re likely to see Ward playing close to the line of scrimmage. In fact, he may line up in the box on most plays as the team looks to stuff Peterson.
Ward is well-aware of the challenges ahead.
“Yeah, it's going to be a tough test for us," Ward said. "He's obviously one of the best backs, if not the best back in this league. We're going to have our hands full trying to contain him.”
Ward is essentially another linebacker for the team. He has an intimidating presence on the field, but Peterson is not going to shy away from any collisions or contact with the star safety on Sunday.
In addition to stuffing Peterson near the line of scrimmage, Ward will have to watch for Peterson when he’s used as a receiver out of the backfield. Any sort of screen pass or wheel route can be dangerous when Peterson is catching the rock. He builds up a head of steam quickly and is incredibly tough to bring down in the open field while sprinting. Ward and free safety Darian Stewart will have to make sure Peterson’s impact as a receiver is limited on Sunday.
Limiting Peterson on the ground is not going to be easy. The Broncos want to limit sustained drives so the defense doesn’t get worn out trying to tackle the big man on play after play.
Kubiak believes in this defense.
“It’s been special," Kubiak said. "We have a long way to go, but it’s been special because it’s been deep with a lot of guys playing and it has a special thing about when it gets its hands on the football, which it does a great deal. It makes big plays.”
Kubiak explained, “We have guys on the back end, I’ve said this over and over again, that can not only cover and do those types of things, but we have a chance when we touch the football to make special plays. Let’s keep it going. It’s been special for three weeks.”
Slowing down the best running back in the game is going to take a full-team effort.
The Broncos are going to have to stay disciplined on the defensive line. They can’t get out of position or create any sort of cutback lanes for the veteran superstar.
The linebackers can’t afford to take false steps on their way to the ball. Once they arrive at the ball-carrier, they must bring Peterson down as quickly as possible to limit yards after contact.
The secondary is going to play an important role as well. While the Vikings should try to spring Peterson on multiple occasions, the corners and the safeties have to keep one eye on the backfield. Having a guy like Ward patrolling near the line of scrimmage is going to help.
It will be interesting to see if the Broncos can slow down Peterson on Sunday. It’s a task that seems gigantic, no matter how strong the defense plays in Week 4.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via the Broncos' media department unless otherwise noted. Advanced stats via ESPN's employees-only database.