MINNEAPOLIS -- Would you believe that Adrian Peterson rushed for 160 yards Sunday in part because ... the Detroit Lions challenged him to? That's the way Peterson's quarterback saw things after the Minnesota Vikings' 24-10 victory at the Metrodome.
"Believe it or not," quarterback Brett Favre said, "without watching the tape, it seemed like today and the last two games ... there were teams that were kind of daring us to run the ball a bit more. Not that they feel threatened by our passing game, but it's really how teams [have played]."
Vikings coach Brad Childress took it a step further, suggesting the Vikings checked out of several downfield passing plays because the Lions' defensive alignment lent itself more to a running play.
"You don't want to put round pegs in square holes," Childress said. "You don't want to throw up the field just to throw up the field."
A true cynic might suggest Favre and Childress were offering elaborate excuses for why their passing game has stumbled throughout the first month of the season. Sunday, Favre threw two more interceptions, bringing his season total to six, and had two other turnovers each nullified by a Lions penalty. "We're not near as good as we were last year," he said, speaking both of himself and the Vikings' passing game.
And yet, the Lions, New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins have defended them largely with two-deep coverages designed to keep receivers from getting downfield at the possible expense of giving Peterson more favorable looks than he is used to. The result? On the strength of a career-long 80-yard touchdown run Sunday, Peterson is off to the best three-game start of his career and -- importantly -- has yet to fumble. (See the chart to your right for details.)
It seems blasphemous to take that approach, especially considering the offense's disjointed start. Frankly, it was Peterson's struggles last season -- he lost six fumbles and went the final seven games without a 100-yard game -- that forced a philosophical shift toward Favre and the passing game in the first place.
But staring down their first 0-3 start in eight years, the Vikings made no secret of their plan to pull back and ride Peterson. The Lions entered the game tied for the NFL lead in sacks, and Favre's lone downfield pass was a 25-yard touchdown to Percy Harvin against a busted coverage. He completed 23 of 34 passes for a modest 201 yards.
Peterson, on the other hand, busted a 19-yard run in the first quarter and then put the game away with the 80-yard run with 3 minutes, 14 second remaining in the third.
"Running has always been our identity," right guard Anthony Herrera said. "Coach Childress will never get away from that. We have Brett and we'll use him, but we're always a run-first team."
Last season's numbers wouldn't bear that out, but here's how I would put it: The Vikings will be a running team for as long as it takes Favre to get untracked. If it doesn't happen at all, it will be Peterson's offense.
"That's the mentality I have," Peterson said. "When things aren't going well, I want to be able to get the guys going up front and settle the run game. So we've been pretty productive."
Indeed, Peterson has never had as many as 392 yards after Week 3, even after putting 180 yards in the books. And remarkably, his big run Sunday came on a play he said the Vikings have never used before.
Peterson said it was called "65 U-back" and that two different players -- left guard Steve Hutchinson and tight end Jeff Dugan -- approached him on the sideline to suggest he could break it for a long gain by cutting back.
"They were telling me the backside would be there," Peterson said. "They said, 'Just make sure you press it. Let it develop the way you know [it should].' "
Peterson hasn't always been known for his patience, but Sunday he pushed into the left side of the line even though he knew if the play was going to break, it would be down the right side line. He ran five yards behind Hutchinson, drawing safety C.C. Brown his way, and then cut back against Brown. Last season, former Lions cornerback Phillip Buchanon caught Peterson from behind on a long run. Buchanon plays for the Washington Redskins now, and the Lions had no one Sunday with a chance to catch Peterson from behind.
"That sure takes a lot of pressure off of me and the passing game when you can do that," Favre said.
The big question is not whether Peterson bailed out the Vikings on Sunday. He most certainly did. It's whether he can do it, and whether he will need to, indefinitely. Favre suggested that the next step should be taking advantage with play-action. But Peterson has other plans. Asked Sunday if he thought a 2,000-yard season was reasonable -- he's on pace for 2,090 -- Peterson offered an alternative answer.
"Twenty-five hundred," he said. "I focus on being the best player I can be to help my team. That's where I set my bar and then I go out and play."
Based on the way Peterson has run in September, I wouldn't rule it out. In this era of our Air and Space division, I'm not sure anyone can win over time without getting more production from the passing game than the Vikings are. But Adrian Peterson as your Plan B? That's an awfully nice alternative -- especially if opponents are giving it to you.