The Ravens had reason to take pause while preparing for Sunday’s home tilt with the Vikings.
Baltimore won’t be hosting any normal 3-8-1 squad. The Ravens are faced with bottling up Adrian Peterson, the league’s leading rusher and perhaps the biggest game-breaker in the NFL.
Peterson is capable of winning a game on his own, and has been at his best in leading Minnesota to its first consecutive games without a loss this season - a modest 1-0-1 stretch the last two weeks. Last week, he ran for a season-high 211 yards in a 23-20 win over the Bears. The week before, he rushed for his previous high of 146 yards in a 26-26 tie with the Packers.
Peterson leads the league with 1,208 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
“He has got everything. He has got all the tools,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Usually, you talk about guys being jump-cutters or this guy is a spinner, this guy can lower his pads and run downhill and run over you. Yeah, that is him. It’s like I told the defense when I put in the game plan, I said, ‘Everybody is at the point of attack when he has the ball. Just because you’re on the back side doesn’t mean that he isn’t coming back there.’
“So all 11 guys have to have their eyes on him when he has the ball, and we have to do a great job of surrounding him. The biggest thing is tackling him. He’ll break tackles. That’s why he has so many runs. They are a good offensive team. They have good players besides him, but he is the guy who really makes that run game go.”
Linebacker Josh Bynes agrees that there’s little Peterson can’t do.
“He pretty much does it all. He runs hard, he’s physical, he’s fast. He’s just that all-in-one, pretty much, back. That’s the kind of guy he is,” Bynes said. “He’s going to keep his feet moving, he’s going to find a way to pick a hole and he’s going to make things happen on his own. If anything else, he’s going to see something happen, you might think it’s closed off and all of a sudden, he puts his foot in the ground and goes the opposite direction. And he has the speed to get outside, so it’s no problem at all and he has the power to power it up in there. So he just does it all pretty well and that’s what makes him an elite back.”
Peterson’s performance has the Vikings ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing offense, 13th in scoring (24.1 points per game) and 14th in total yards (343.3 yards per game).
The Ravens haven’t taken on Peterson since 2009, when he gashed them for 143 rushing yards, including a 58-yarder, in a 33-31 Minnesota win. Linebacker Jameel McClain remembers it well.
“I remember us focusing on him the same way. He was a great running back. He did a lot of good things that game,” McClain said. “I remember one specific run where he really broke out there on us and got a couple of yards, and we really hated ourselves at that moment for that, because we knew we wanted to bottle him up. That’s kind of what he does.”
The Ravens answer Peterson with the sixth-ranked run defense in the league, holding opponents to 100.1 rushing yards per contest. Over the last five games, Baltimore has permitted just 94.2 rushing yards per game.
So the Ravens have done well against the run since being burned for at least 140 in three of four games from Sept. 29 to Oct. 20. McClain doesn’t seem too satisfied, however.
“It’s kind of like a give and a take, because if I say we have been (satisfied), that would say that I’m not disappointed about the times that we haven’t,” McClain said. “So I’d say it’s in between - we’re happy about the improvement, we’re happy about what we’re doing, but we know there’s so much more room for us to grow. (There are) so many 20-yard gains or 25-yard gains that we can stop, or even bigger ones than that. So it’s nice to see the improvement, to be who we are supposed to be as a defense, but it’s disappointing sometimes, because some plays shouldn’t happen.”
The Vikings haven’t been as adept at making such plays in the passing game, as they rank 25th in the league in passing.
And they’ll be without starting quarterback Christian Ponder, who left last week’s win with a concussion. Former Patriots and Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel is set to make his third start (and sixth appearance) of the season.
He has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 857 yards, five touchdowns and four interceptions. Pees, who coached against Cassel in practice while both were together in New England, is familiar with the Vikings passer.
“I know Matt really, really well. The thing about Matt is the fact that this guy is a pretty good athlete,” Pees said. “This guy was going to be a professional baseball player and just is a really good athlete, so you can’t just abandon your pass rush lanes and take off. That hurt us last week against Pittsburgh in the second half. I give Ben (Roethlisberger) a lot of credit; I think he played a very, very good game. We played a great half, (but in) the second half, we didn’t do the things in the red area or on third downs where we’ve been the strongest.
“We didn’t do the things that we needed to do, and part of that was because (Roethlisberger) got out on us. ... Well, the same way with Cassel, and Ponder is that way, too. Both of these guys are good athletes. They can run, they can scramble, and we’ve got to do a good job of crowding them and not letting them out of the pocket.”
But Pees wasn’t pretending the Ravens’ top task is shutting down the Minnesota passing attack. It’s about Peterson and the play-action set up by him.
The Ravens know it will be a challenge, but are excited to face one of the league’s greats.
“He’s the best running back in the NFL, by far. It’s the reason he got paid $100 million, and we’re going to get their best effort regardless,” Bynes said. “When you come to play the Ravens, it doesn’t matter what your record is or whatever the case may be. You want to be at your best.
“And I think it’s just as much (exciting) for him as well as it is for us, him coming to play the Ravens and run for 100, 200 yards, try to run for that against us. And for us, it’s mainly keeping him down under 100 pretty much for the whole game. That’s our goal and of course his goal is to do it the other way around. It’s just going to be a good matchup for us and him.”