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Appreciating Adrian Peterson

One of the coolest pieces of sports memorabilia I ever saw was at Bookman’s Alley, the great old used bookstore in Evanston. It was a poster made of some sort of cloth displaying the schedule for the 1927 Chicago Cardinals season, like the 1920’s version of a team schedule refrigerator magnet.

The schedule read:

September 25: Chicago Bears
October 2: Pottsville Maroons
October 9: Dayton Triangles
October 16: at Green Bay Packers
October 30: Red Grange
November 6: Green Bay Packers
November 13: at Red Grange
November 19: at Frankford Yellow Jackets
November 20: at New York Giants
November 24: at Chicago Bears
November 27: Cleveland Bulldogs

Take a look at the games scheduled for October 30 and November 13. Those games were actually against the New York Yankees football team, formerly of the original American Football League, a league that disgruntled Bears star and University of Illinois alum Red Grange helped create in 1926. When the league folded after one year, the Yankees joined the NFL.

So it would have been a pretty big deal for Chicago football fans in 1927 to know that Grange, the homegrown star, would be in town. The schedule, made for Cardinals fans, highlights the reason to attend the Yankees games: “You’re not paying to see the Yankees – you’re paying to see Red Grange!”

The singling out works on another level too: Grange was New York’s best player, so when either a player or a fan viewed that schedule and pictured the game ahead, their attention was immediately focused on the dazzling Grange.

That’s what made seeing the schedule so cool: while professional sports have changed drastically since the 20s, the focus on marquee players – both as marketable draws and as intimidating menaces – remains the same.

Exhibit A: This week’s Bears game against Adrian Peterson, AKA the Minnesota Vikings.

Peterson enters the game as the league’s reigning MVP, and is fresh off a three-touchdown game that began with him running 78 yards for a score on Minnesota’s first play of the season.

But before even considering how the Bears may venture to stop AP, what excites me most as a sports fan is simply the opportunity to knowingly watch an all-time great player.

Last year, Peterson entered the Barry Sanders zone: We play him twice a season, and instead of feeling devastated, I feel blessed. In fact, even though Peterson has only played six seasons, I believe he’s already a Hall of Famer.

Forget about projections of yardage and touchdowns and what his numbers might look like in four years. They have nothing to do with my assessment that Peterson is already Hall-worthy. For that, I use “the Bus Test.” It’s very simple: take any player in any sport and pretend he was hit by a bus and never played again. Is he in or is he out?

Peterson set the Vikings’s single-game rushing record as a rookie, and then set the NFL’s single-game rushing record later that season. He’s won two rushing titles. He’s never scored fewer than 10 touchdowns in a season. He’s one of only four players with at least 1500 carries to average at least 5 yards per carry. And his 2012 MVP season was one of the greatest years ever enjoyed by an NFL running back.

His most impressive feat, in my mind anyway, is that he is the centerpiece of one of the few Bears losses that holds a fond place in my heart. October 14, 2007 at Soldier Field, Vikings 34, Bears 31 on a last-second field goal. Why this game? Because Peterson made me say, “that’s the greatest running I’ve ever seen.” A rookie in his fifth pro game, Peterson ran for 224 yards and three scores, and returned four kicks for 128 yards. Add on a nine-yard catch and it was a 361-yard day for AP.

The only thing missing from that day was a Bears win. If I were a Niners fan in 1965, I wouldn’t complain about “this Sayers kid scoring six touchdowns on us,” and as a Bears fan in 2007, I didn’t complain about Peterson. He makes me excited to watch. Can’t ask for anything more.

***

Now, let’s set the historical aspects to the side for a moment, and remember that this is a divisional game against a team that employs the game’s most dangerous running back.

What makes Peterson dangerous? It’s a combination of traits, mainly strength and speed. “Strength” is about his ability to gain yards after contact. While “speed” is the ability to run full speed, stop, cut, change direction, and then resume running full speed without needing to rev up again. The whole “0 to 60” thing, that is.

The key here is the ability to cut. Remember last October when Peterson, back from his knee injury, started to look like the Peterson of old, and there was a discussion comparing his progress to Derrick Rose?

The problem with the comparison, as many people pointed out, is that the bulk of a running back’s running is straight ahead, while a basketball player is constantly cutting. Here’s what Gale Sayers wrote in his 1970 autobiography I Am Third about playing basketball during his knee injury rehabilitation:

“Basketball is a helluva test for the knee. It may be the most difficult sport to play if you have a knee injury because you’re always cutting. Lots of times in football you’re running straight ahead, but in basketball you stop and go and twist and turn and jump.”

So no, Bulls fans, we can’t compare Rose’s progress to Peterson’s. But while there isn’t as much cutting, that quick side-to-side movement is crucial to a running back breaking those long runs.

Take a look at Peterson’s 78-yard touchdown run to open last week’s game. The play is made possible by three cuts, and should give Bears fans a better sense of what we have in store this week.

It begins with the Vikings in their base offense, with a tight end on the left side of the formation. Minnesota’s line pushes to the right, and quarterback Christian Ponder uses his left hand to give Peterson the ball. As seen below, Detroit’s linebackers respond by playing the run to go to the right:

However, take a look at the gap between Minnesota’s left tackle and their tight end. Eight of Detroit’s 11 defenders are sealed on the wrong side of the tackle, and fullback Rhett Ellison (#40) is going to block linebacker DeAndre Levy (#54).

Adrian Peterson gameview 2

Here we see Peterson’s first cut…

Adrian Peterson gameview 3

…the one he uses to redirect the play to the left side of the field.

Less than a second later, we see cut number two:

Adrian Peterson gameview 4

Ellison is preparing to block Levy, and Peterson is going to cut inside the gap between Ellison and Minnesota’s left tackle Matt Kalil (#75).

Now look on the left side of the frame, where the Lions safety is cutting to his right in anticipation of Peterson breaking through the hole. Peterson gets him off-balance here…

Adrian Peterson gameview 5

…and then gives him an ankle breaker for cut number three…

Adrian Peterson gameview 6

…a move he uses to quickly evade the defender:

Adrian Peterson gameview 7

Now he’s ahead of the pack:

Adrian Peterson gameview 8

He’s got nine defenders behind him, with only a safety up ahead. But the safety takes a bad angle, because against Peterson, anything less than a perfect angle is a bad one. As you see here, the safety is screwed:

Adrian Peterson gameview 9

Peterson runs past him and then uses his strength to pull away from a would-be arm tackle:

Adrian Peterson gameview 10

Now it’s all speed:

Adrian Peterson gameview 11

And that’s all she wrote.

What does that mean for the Bears this week? Well, the most significant change on the Bears D this season is at linebacker, and as we saw above, the key to that run was Minnesota duping the Detroit backers into playing the run to the right.

Losing Brian Urlacher’s smarts and playcalling certainly affects the defense, but gaining the speed and athleticism of James Anderson and D.J. Williams (and, eventually, Jon Bostic) is a big boost. Peterson’s ability to read defenses, cut, break tackles, and accelerate will tell us a lot about this revamped Bears linebacking corps.

***

For a final perspective on all things Peterson, I called retired Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. Hillenmeyer played Peterson six times from 2007 to 2009, with great success in 2009:

2009, Game 1: 8 tackles, 7 solo, 2 forced fumble (one recovered by Alex Brown, one out of bounds)

2009, Game 2: 6 tackles, 4 solo, 1 forced fumble (recovered by Nick Roach)

Hillenmeyer was on the field for the 224-yard game in 2007. He says that like the rest of the NFL, the Bears did not know just how good Peterson was until that game.

“That first game nobody really knew how good he was going to be,” Hillenmeyer said. “He runs really hard, but there’s a lot of big, fast guys who can run over you and make you miss and do all those kinds of things. But for some reason he just takes it to another level.”

Of all Peterson’s assets, it was his speed that most impressed Hillenmeyer. “I recall one particular play where he and Peanut [Tillman] took off down the field in stride. Peanut is faster than almost every running back in the NFL. I know Chris Johnson and some of those guys are burners now, but up to that point in Peanut’s career and my career, I’d never seen him not catch a running back. So he took one on us for like 80 or something like that, and Peanut had a chance to get him but never closed. That was the first time where I was like ‘Wow, we’re dealing with a different breed here.’”

After that game, the Bears began gameplanning differently for Peterson than other backs.

“It’s rare that you gameplan a particular way because of a running back,” he said. “And part of that is because you’re usually already gameplanning around the running game. But you do everything you can to almost never have just one person with a chance to make the tackle on Adrian Peterson.

“There are certain teams where you know the running back is kind of just ‘a guy,’ and you feel like if you’ve got a person in the hole and they’re in the position to make the play then they’re gonna make the play. With Peterson, every time we played the Vikings, in practice it was always about 11 hats to the football, play to the whistle, never expect him to go down.

“But at the same time, his one Achilles heel is that he’s been a bit of a fumbler. I had a season where I managed to get three of them out in the two games we played against him. And part of that is the fact that he runs so hard and fights for every single yard, that he’s still on his feet where most guys would already be on the ground. And that creates opportunities for that second, third, or fourth guy to knock the football out.”

Hillenmeyer is enjoying retirement, but as he tweeted last Sunday, there are still moments where he misses the game. I’m sure he’ll be watching Peterson this Sunday just like the rest of us. After all, I’m guessing that when he got his first look at the Bears schedule, he saw the same thing I did:

September 8: Cincinnati Bengals
September 15:  Adrian Peterson

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