The Chicago Bears could not find an answer. Facing Adrian Peterson for the second time in three weeks on Sunday, the NFL’s fifth-ranked defence fared even worse than they had 14 days previously. In week 12 Peterson had rushed for 108 yards and one touchdown; this time he would go for 154 yards and two scores.
There were mitigating factors for the Bears – not least the fact that their starting middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had been sidelined by a hamstring injury – but the truth is that few others this season have fared any better. Through 13 games Peterson has rushed for 1,600 yards at a scarcely believable rate of 6.0 per carry.
Even more incredibly, Peterson is less than 12 months removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in his left knee. All season long analysts have been wondering aloud how such a rapid and complete recovery from those injuries was even possible.
The St Louis Rams have mostly just spent this week asking what can be done to slow him down. Over the past two weeks they have had tremendous success against two of the best rushing offences in the league – keeping San Francisco’s Frank Gore to 53 yards on 28 carries and Buffalo’s CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson to a combined 51 on 14. But all were quick to acknowledge that stopping Peterson is another matter entirely.
“No disrespect to anybody we’ve played, we’ve played some great backs, but Adrian Peterson is the best back we’ve seen all year,” said the defensive end Chris Long, who added that watching game film of the player’s recent performances had been an enlightening experience. “I wasn’t sure if it was a highlight reel or a big run cut-up. It’s pretty entertaining. As a player, it’s fun to watch a guy like that on tape.”
Rather less enjoyable might be the experience of playing against him on Sunday. Coaches and players were united in citing not only Peterson’s speed and vision, but the power that makes him so hard to bring down. “He’s a violent runner,” said head coach Jeff Fisher. “Rarely do defensive backs get him down one-on-one and when they do he pats them on the back of the helmet and says ‘congratulations’.”
Opinions on how to contain such a threat vary. “Gang tackling,” was the solution offered by linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar – though he acknowledged that putting everybody in place to do so was easier said than done. But Fisher’s preferred strategy would be to avoid letting Peterson get the ball in his hands in the first place, by sustaining long possessions and keeping the Vikings’ offence off the field.
“We talked about it as an offense today – that in the games that they’ve lost in the past couple weeks, I think they’ve only had the ball for 20 minutes, 22 minutes a game,” said quarterback Sam Bradford. “In the games they’ve won, they’ve controlled it for about half the game or more. So, we know that it’s extremely important for us to maintain drives and convert on third downs.”
That has not always proved straightforward for the Rams. Only two teams have have generated fewer first downs than St Louis this season – the Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars. In their three first-quarter possessions against the Bills on Sunday, the Rams moved the ball a combined total of three yards downfield.
But despite that fact they have found ways to stay competitive more often than not. And if the debate about how to stop Peterson has been the No1 topic of discussion on local sports radio this week it is at least in part because this is a game which could actually matter. At 6-6-1, the Rams are still not mathematically out of the playoff hunt.
Five teams remain ahead of St Louis in the race for the NFC’s two remaining wildcard berths, but they have games against two of those yet to come. The Rams can leapfrog Minnesota this weekend with a victory. They will then face their division rival Seattle in week 17, though at 8-5 the Seahawks would need to lose at least one of their two games in the interim for St Louis to have a shot at overtaking them.
In reality, of course, the chances of the Rams winning all three of their remaining match-ups are very slim. After facing the Vikings at home this Sunday, both of their last two games will be on the road. Their other remaining opponent, Tampa Bay, might be out of the playoff race but are certainly no pushovers.
Yet the fact that there is hope at all is a fact worth celebrating. Over the last three weeks the Rams have won more games than they did in the entire 2011 season. If they can make it four from four on Sunday, then they will be entitled to dream the improbable dream. But first someone has to work out a way of slowing down Adrian Peterson.
In the news …
A couple more stories about the Rams this week that readers might want to check out:
Five-minute interview: Rams tight end Lance Kendricks
This is your second year in St Louis, it’s a completely different coaching staff. How have you found it?
I’m liking it a lot. I think I’m adjusting as the year goes on, and I think that as the year goes on we’re progressing as a team, as well as individually.
You’ve been called on to do a lot of run blocking this year and with the offensive line suffering so many injuries your role in that has been even more important than normal. How are you feeling about that aspect of your game?
It’s definitely important. I think week by week we’ve got a little better each week at running the ball. And I take it as any other job, really.
Does it affect you having so much change along the offensive line?
It doesn’t really affect me. Sometimes it might affect the scheme and that might affect my job on an individual play, but it doesn’t affect the way I have to approach the game.
You travelled to London with the rest of the team earlier this year – how did you find that experience?
I loved it. Loved it. I plan on going back. Great time, nice people. I like the culture. I like seeing something different. I liked being there and experiencing new things. The food was a little different though. I’m not sure I hated it, but it would need some adjusting.
Was it your first time there?
It was my first time outside the US.
Did you watch the Olympics in London earlier this summer?
Yes I did.
We only ask because we know you did a little bit of triple-jumping in high school … did you find yourself wishing you were there taking part?
Yeah, that was about 50lbs ago, back in my skinny days! But I love watching track and field – that’s definitely my second favourite sport. I enjoy competing.
Do you think if you hadn’t made it in football that might have been the path you would have taken?
Yeah, definitely. I started track when I was about nine years old, and I did it all the way up until I was 18. I loved it. I actually did try to keep on with track in my freshman year at college, but it coincided with football too much, so I had to stop.
Was that your choice, rather than the coach’s?
Yeah. You’re trying to put on weight, and then you’re trying to lose weight for track, put it back on for football. You can only do one. I was sad, but it was the right decision.
Why should fans in the UK get behind the Rams?
Oh, because we’re a team up-and-coming. We’ve won three in a row and we’re on the rise.