OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Even if they’re fortunate enough to only play him once every four years, the Ravens are fully aware of the greatness of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
In fact, Peterson is only the first of several of the NFL’s best the Ravens must stop over the final month of the season to advance to the postseason for the sixth consecutive season under coach John Harbaugh.
Next week, the Ravens take on Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, the undisputed best wide receiver on the planet today. The week after, it’s one of the best quarterbacks in league history in Tom Brady. And if the Ravens can get past the first three while remaining upright in terms of their postseason fate, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green awaits in the regular-season finale.
No sweat, right?
But the Ravens can only focus on Peterson and Minnesota for now with all discussion of Sunday’s game centered around stopping the five-time Pro Bowl running back and 2012 NFL Most Valuable Player. Peterson leads the league with 1,208 rushing yards after collecting more than 2,000 on the ground last year coming off a torn ACL at the end of the 2011 season.
“What’s his nickname, ‘All Day?'” linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “The man runs hard all day. It’s going to be interesting. It’s definitely a challenge for us, and we’re really looking forward to it. We’ll have to see what’s up on Sunday.”
Only a handful of defensive players remain on the roster from the last time the Ravens took on Peterson and the Vikings at the Metrodome in 2009, but the memory of the 6-foot-1, 217-yard back rushing for 143 yards on 22 carries was a difficult one for a defense that prides itself on stopping the run. Baltimore has allowed over 100 rushing yards in six of its 12 games, but only one of those contests resulted in an individual century-mark rusher as Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy ran for 120 yards in Week 6.
Aside from a four-week stretch earlier this season when the Ravens allowed 140 or more rushing yards three times — against Buffalo, the Packers, and Pittsburgh — the run defense has been strong, ranking sixth in the league by allowing 100.1 rushing yards per game. Dean Pees’ unit has allowed only 3.7 yards per carry, but the Ravens haven’t faced a back with Peterson’s incredibly rare combination of speed, size, toughness, and agility.
In addition to following gap assignments and simply staying home to protect against cutbacks, the common theme expressed by the Ravens Wednesday was the need to gang-tackle to neutralize Peterson’s ability to shed defenders. According to Pro Football Focus, he leads the league with 801 yards after contact, which is over 200 more than second-place Marshawn Lynch of Seattle.
“Everybody has to tackle. You have to have a whole defensive effort,” cornerback Lardarius Webb said. “Everybody needs to run to the ball. One guy doesn’t usually bring him down. He’s one of those backs that can change the game on any play.”
The numbers support that sentiment as Peterson is averaging 3.1 yards per attempt after contact this season; the Ravens’ struggling running game collects only 2.9 yards overall per carry.
As if his reputation for being a bruising running back that breaks tackles wasn’t enough, Peterson is also tied for second in the NFL with eight runs of 20 or more yards. Suggs recalled a 58-yard run Peterson collected in the Vikings’ 33-31 win in 2009 and how scary it can be to see him find the second and third levels of the defense.
“It’s not a good scene when you’re behind [No.] 28,” Suggs said. “You just hope you’ve got somebody fast enough on the team to catch the guy. But if you keep him in front of you, then you’ve got a good chance of containing him.”
Of course, even with Peterson, the Vikings are 3-8-1 and possess the league’s 25th-ranked passing game as the quarterbacking trio of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, and Josh Freeman have been unable to generate any consistency through the air. The Vikings’ passing game ineptitude has allowed teams to put eight men in the box far too often, making it likely that safeties James Ihedigbo and Matt Elam will take turns playing close to the line of scrimmage in an effort to slow the intimidating back.
Such defensive looks make it even more impressive that Peterson is leading the league in rushing for the second straight year with not much help behind him in terms of a passing game.
With Ponder not expected to start while recovering from a concussion, the Ravens will likely see Cassel under center, a signal-caller they harassed incessantly in a 2010 wild-card victory against Kansas City. Baltimore is saying all the right things about the Vikings’ talented trio of wide receivers in former Packer Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson, but the numbers suggest that a huge day from Peterson is the Vikings’ only realistic hope for an upset on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.
“He’s a threat every time he touches the ball, so we’ll have our hands full,” Harbaugh said. “But it just can’t be that. You can’t sleep on the rest of their talent. They’ve got a number of very good tight ends that can make plays. They’ve got a number of very talented receivers that can make plays. They are a fully complemented offense talent-wise.”
The key word is containment as Peterson has only been held under 75 rushing yards four times this season. The Vikings running back is too talented not to get his yards, but the Ravens must prevent him from going off like he did last week against the Bears for over 200 rushing yards in an overtime win.
The overall Week 14 competition is underwhelming for the Ravens as they begin the final quarter of the season on Sunday, but Peterson is just the first of several big names that lie in their path to the postseason.
It doesn’t get any easier after that with Detroit, New England, and Cincinnati looming after that.
“Isn’t that everybody’s motivation? You get the chance to go up against the best,” linebacker Jameel McClain said. “We get the opportunity this week to go up against one of the best running backs, and then the week after that, we get a chance [against] one of the better receivers in the league. It’s everybody’s motivation to come and bring their ‘A’ game. We wouldn’t be in this game if we weren’t trying to compete with the best.”