As Mathieu approached the line, shoulders squared, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was barreling toward him. Mathieu had him in front of him: right where he wanted him. But with a quick cut left, Mathieu was left grasping for air as Peterson made one more cut before finding the end zone.
Mathieu learned a critical lesson on that play: No one has Peterson until he’s on the ground and the whistle is blown.
“It was definitely a reality check for me,” Mathieu said. “I maybe underestimated him when I got him in that hole. I didn’t feel like he had anywhere to go. I guess that’s why he’s Adrian Peterson.”
Like many young players who face Peterson for the first time, there’s an air of reverence toward the league’s leading rusher.
“Some of them were awestruck,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “You hear about the guy, then all of a sudden you see him and you miss a tackle and you try to do too much.
“That’s the common threat with our defense. If we give up a play, then guys try to do too much to stop them instead of just doing your job.”
Once Peterson scored, ending the Vikings' first offensive drive, on which he ran for 38 yards on four carries, the Cardinals’ defense came back down to reality and handled their roles well enough to slow Peterson.
From the end of the Vikings' first drive to the start of their second-to-last drive of the fourth quarter, Peterson ran for just 20 yards.
“It was outstanding,” Arians said. “I thought his last 19 carries were 30-something yards after we settled down and didn’t try to do too much.
“The first drive was like we never practiced.”
But regardless of how few yards Arizona held Peterson to after that first drive, the Cardinals were playing on edge, not wanting him to get free or on a roll. And it nearly cost them because Arians felt the defense was over-aggressive with Peterson and its focus on assignments, especially in the passing game, waned.
Dollar linebacker Deone Bucannon openly admitted that thinking about Peterson caused “lulls” from him.
That led to Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater throwing for a career-high 335 yards and nearly completing a comeback from 10 points down.
“We wanted to make Teddy beat us and he almost did,” Arians said. “Hat’s off to him. He had a hell of a ballgame.”