When Adrian Peterson returned to the field in Week 1 of this season, it wasn't your typical game.
Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings were playing the second leg of the Monday Night Football doubleheader against the San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings would lose heavily against a 49ers team that has since gone into meltdown mode.
The Vikings rebounded from that game and, after 12 weeks of the season, sit atop the NFC North with an 8-3 record.
If you told Vikings fans that this would be where they sit on that night in San Francisco, they likely wouldn't have even entertained the idea. It wasn't simply that the team had lost so heavily against the 49ers, it was that both quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and Peterson had played poorly.
Bridgewater and Peterson were expected to carry an offense that lacked receiving options and relied on one of the worst offensive lines in the league. If their Week 1 displays were indicative of how they would play moving forward, the Vikings would have been competing for the top draft pick instead of a postseason spot.
Since Week 1, Bridgewater has consistently been turning bad situations into positive ones with his acumen and awareness to adjust in tight pockets, while Peterson has stockpiled yards on explosive plays.
Peterson hasn't been as consistent as he was in seasons past, but in a league that is missing Le'Veon Bell, Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles, with other notable backs such as DeMarco Murray and Eddie Lacy struggling to find their fit/form, he has been able to stockpile more yards than any other back.
Through 12 weeks and 11 games, Peterson has run 237 times for 1,164 yards and eight touchdowns.
In six of his 11 games, Peterson has run for at least 100 yards with one game eclipsing 200. He has consistently broken off big plays, boasting longs of 25, 43, 48, 23, 75, 80 and 35 in separate games. Eight of his 237 carries have gone for more than 20 yards and four of those have gone for more than 40.
Only Doug Martin has more explosive runs this season than Peterson. Martin is also averaging more yards per attempt, but he has 35 fewer carries than Peterson so he is more than 100 yards behind in terms of total yardage.
It's clear that Peterson isn't the primed player he was at his peak, highlighted most by his five fumbles, but he is the best running back currently on the field in the NFL.
Against the Atlanta Falcons, Peterson ran 29 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons have an impressive run defense and they got the better of the running back during the first half. Peterson gained 49 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, with eight of those carries gaining three or fewer yards.
Eventually, Peterson wore the defense down. Three of his first four carries in the third quarter gained more than three yards and the final of the four went for 17, which was his longest of the game to that point.
It was 3rd-and-1 close to midfield, so the Vikings naturally came out with a heavy set to run Peterson between the tackles. The Falcons responded with nine defenders in the box. In theory, this should tighten the field and put more defenders in position to make a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage.
From the running back's point of view, it can mean something else.
Some backs relish these situations, not because all of the attention is shifted onto their ability to get a couple of yards and extend the drive, but rather the aggressiveness of the defense can make them susceptible to a big play. If you make one defender miss, you often find yourself in wide open space.
As Peterson gets the ball, it initially appears that the Vikings offensive line is going to open up a hole for him to attack in the middle of the field. Peterson advances for a step, but recognizes quickly that the backside defender, Tyson Jackson, is crashing down to close off his running lane.
Fortunately for Peterson, the design of this play gives him an option.
One of the tight ends that lined up off the line of scrimmage, behind the right side of the offensive line, worked his way across the field at the snap. He cut in front of Peterson's face and picked up the edge defender as Peterson planted his right foot to follow in his direction.
O'Brien Schofield is the edge defender on the right side of the Falcons defense. He does a good job to shed the block of the tight end who came across the field to engage him. However, the effort to shed the blocker meant he wasn't in perfect set to tackle Peterson.
Peterson was able to run through an attempted arm tackle from Schofield with ease.
His awareness and power allowed Peterson to get to the line of scrimmage unopposed. He comfortably gained the first down before advancing further downfield. Peterson was confronted by a safety who he ran through while another defender attempted to hit him from the side.
Most running backs go to ground at that point of the play and are satisfied with their first down and strong gain. Peterson didn't just absorb the blindside hit from linebacker Paul Worrilow, he clenched his body so he doled out more punishment to the defender than the defender did him.
That strength and balance allowed him to fall forward for a further three or four yards as a swarm of defenders converged on him.
After that play, the Falcons were able to contain Peterson again through the third quarter. He carried the ball just three more times, gaining 10 yards with seven coming on one of those carries. That wouldn't last long though, as he broke off another big run at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Last season, when Peterson was suspended for most of the year, the Vikings shifted their offense onto Bridgewater. They spread the field more often and asked him to make quicker throws to consistently keep the offense moving toward the end zone.
This season, with Peterson on the field, the Vikings have shifted their focus.
Because Peterson doesn't excel at running from shotgun formations, the Vikings have kept Bridgewater under center more and incorporated heavier packages to run power more often. One of the most important alterations for Peterson is the use of the fullback.
For his 16-yard run at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Vikings had Peterson line up behind a fullback before taking the ball up the middle. The Vikings used their center and left guard to create the initial hole between the defensive tackle and defensive end.
That hole was predictably filled by a linebacker, but this is where the fullback's value was evident.
Because the fullback was able to account for Philip Wheeler, No. 51, Peterson had the opportunity to run into clear space at the line of scrimmage. He didn't have a clean route to the second level yet, but there wasn't any defender capable of meeting him in his initial hole.
Although the fullback and center picked up their blocks, neither player was able to control their defender. The fullback was knocked backwards so he took space away from Peterson while the center saw his defender peel away from him to attempt an arm tackle.
Peterson is a big, powerful back, but he also is a slender back.
He doesn't have any weight that works against him, which allows him to get skinny when necessary. On this play, he is able to fit through a hole that most backs wouldn't. He breaks the attempted arm tackle of the defensive tackle at speed before advancing to the second level.
Peterson's work to get through the line of scrimmage was the most impressive aspect of this play, but he was still creating yards on the second level as well. Defensive backs can be reluctant to attack Peterson aggressively because he has the ability to skip past them or run over them.
As such, Peterson is often given opportunities to manipulate them with his movement in space.
On this play, the running back makes one hard cut after getting through the line of scrimmage to freeze the defensive back furthest to his right. Once he has done that, he turns toward the sideline before cutting back upfield behind one of his blockers.
Multiple defenders are needed to drag him down from behind. This is the kind of play that really highlights Peterson's value. Most running backs don't get through the line of scrimmage and many of those that do are unlikely to retain their balance once they break the arm tackle at speed.
That was Peterson's most impressive play of the game, but it wasn't his biggest.
His biggest came late in the fourth quarter, on 3rd-and-5 when he ran in a game-sealing touchdown from 35 yards out. The running back didn't have to break multiple tackles, fit through a tight hole or set up his blocks in a spectacular fashion. Instead he relied on his vision and acceleration to get to the end zone.
The quandary that defensive front sevens are put in by Peterson's presence on the field was highlighted in this game. Because Peterson is such a powerful back, the defense expects him to run between the tackles and feels compelled to get enough bodies around him to prevent him from doing so.
However, Peterson's explosiveness and vision means he can also be tossed the ball when led toward either sideline.
On this play, the Falcons stack the box with 10 defenders and have one cornerback in press coverage to the far side of the field. When the Vikings toss the ball to Peterson, they use two of their tight ends to clamp down on the edge defenders and pull the other outside as a lead blocker.
This creates a situation where Peterson is in space with two blockers ahead of him accounting for two defenders. Every other potential tackler on the play is attempting to recover positioning from the backside of the play.
His vision tells him to cutback before his acceleration takes him away from Wheeler's attempted tackle. From there, Peterson is able to follow his downfield blocker to the sideline where he finds a clear path to the end zone.
These are the types of plays that are allowing the Vikings to be a successful run-based offense. Peterson isn't consistently gaining four to seven yards on plays, but he is creating enough big plays to be so productive.
Football Outsiders' DVOA metric that measures efficiency on a snap-by-snap basis has the Vikings as the ninth best running game in the league. Even though that seems high, it is low when you consider Peterson's overall production this season.
This discrepancy highlights how boom-or-bust he has been this season.
Unsurprisingly, Peterson leads the league in runs of three or fewer yards this season. An incredible 136 of his 237 attempts this season have resulted in three or fewer yards. He has 17 attempts more than the player with the second most, Jonathan Stewart, while gaining 25 fewer yards on just those plays.
Peterson has only gained 88 yards on those 136 rushing attempts. Ten players have more yards than him, and all of them except for Chris Johnson have as many or more touchdowns on those attempts. The number of touchdowns is important because it shows us that this isn't simply Peterson being punished for running in so many short-yardage scores.
Behind the Vikings' depleted offensive line, it's no surprise that Peterson is being put in positions to fail so often.
While Martin doesn't have a great offensive line either and is beating Peterson in more than a few statistical categories, he has been more matchup reliant than Peterson. He has shown less consistency on a week-by-week basis, feasting more on lesser teams.
Peterson has been the driving force behind a limited Vikings offense. He is one of the main reasons the franchise is on its way back to the playoffs. The last time the Vikings made the playoffs, Peterson was unquestionably the best back in the NFL.
It's easier to question him as the best back in the league right now, but with so many injuries at the position across the league, it's hard to argue against him.