From a pure football standpoint, one might think that the New Orleans Saints would be smiling over the fact that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will not be on the field for Sunday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
One of the best running backs in football, as described by Saints coach Sean Payton, Peterson was placed on the exempt list Wednesday and will remain there while he deals with charges stemming from the way he disciplined his 4-year-old son. Placing moral judgments on Peterson’s situation aside, his absence creates a competitive advantage for the Saints.
But even though the Saints are 0-2 and in need of a victory against the Vikings, not all members of the defense are happy that Peterson will miss the game.
“I was looking forward to it. Honestly, growing up, he was my favorite player,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “When I got to the league, you asked me my favorite player, I would say Adrian Peterson — from the time he was Oklahoma until now. It’s a disappointment, because you want to go against the best.”
Peterson also has a fan in linebacker Curtis Lofton, who said Peterson hosted him on a college visit to Oklahoma and that he decided to go to school there because of his experience on the trip.
“I was looking forward to it,” Lofton said. “I was going to call it the ‘Oklahoma Drill,’ meeting him in the gap.”
Taking Peterson out of the game certainly changes things. The 29-year-old rushed for 1,266 yards in 14 games last season and picked up 75 on 21 carries during a Week 1 win over the St. Louis Rams. Quarterback Matt Cassel attempted 25 passes in that game.
With Peterson out against the New England Patriots last week, a 30-7 loss, Matt Asiata picked up 36 yards on 13 carries, and Cassel attempted 36 passes. The run-pass ratio was certainly impacted by the lopsided score, but there’s little doubt Minnesota is currently without its most dangerous weapon.
“Like I said many times before, Adrian’s a special player,” Cassel said. “We all know that, and everybody else in the league knows that. We have a lot of respect and confidence in Matt Asiata and Jerick (McKinnon) and the guys behind them. They played a lot in the preseason.”
Asiata had 24 carries for 80 yards (3.3 yards per carry) and McKinnon had 108 yards on 22 carries (4.9 per attempt) during the preseason. And even though those players are not Peterson, the Saints do not expect the Vikings’ approach this week to be drastically different. They fully expect Minnesota to try to establish the running game early and have Cassel pick his spots.
So New Orleans’ goal is to take away that option and put the ball in Cassel’s hands, as New England did last week.
“Make them one-dimensional and then go after the quarterback,” Lofton said. “Any time you don’t have an elite running back in the backfield — not saying those other guys aren’t good (but) Adrian’s definitely one of the top running backs in the league — that allows us to do different things.”
One player the Saints will have to pay special attention to is wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who has the ability to break open a play whenever he gets the ball in his hands — either as a receiver or a returner.
Payton said he was aware of the wide receiver from seeing him on highlight reels but had never watched him closely before this week. He was even more impressed when he sat down to watch Patterson this week.
“You see some of the SportsCenter highlights. And last night, I put on a little cut up,” Payton said. “He is as explosive a player with a ball in his hands as there is in this league.”
The same goes for the members of the secondary.
“I think he’s explosive, man. However you put it,” Vaccaro said. “They say maybe he doesn’t run (great) routes, but when he gets the ball, he can score. He runs hard. He runs physical. He breaks tackles. He’s not like a guy you can just throw your hand out there and he’ll go down. ... He’s more like a running back running with the ball.”
Patterson hasn’t lit the league up this year as a receiver. He has seven catches for 82 yards, but he also has three carries for 102 yards. The Vikings aren’t shy about getting him the ball in unconventional ways — similar to how the Saints use Brandin Cooks.
So Patterson is now the new player the Saints defense is focused on shutting down. It won’t be easy, but the problems are easier to solve than the ones Peterson would present if he were playing.
Not everyone in New Orleans is happy about it now, but there will be few complaints about who was not on the field if the Saints get their first win this week.