While Adrian Peterson supports his team from the sidelines, the Vikings must get their ground game up and running – literally.
As the Vikings played their second road game of the season against the Panthers Sunday afternoon, there was some question on how the running backs would fare after Peterson suffered a torn meniscus that required surgery. The backs themselves, however, were entirely confident.
"I don't think anybody has butterflies," Jerick McKinnon said earlier last week. "We're well prepared, and two years ago, me and Matt [Asiata] were in the same type of situation [without Peterson]. It's done by committee, so we're going to go out there and give it all we can and just hope for the best."
Minnesota struggled with the run over the first two games as teams stacked the box to stifle Peterson. Heading into Week 3, the Vikings were averaging 1.9 rushing yards per game, the longest run having been a 12-yard break by Asiata.
Although there's still room for improvement, the Vikings running backs experienced fewer defenders swarming. Minnesota finished with 58 rushing yards and an average of 2.4 yards per carry.
"Those guys ran the ball pretty well," quarterback Sam Bradford said after the game. "We stuck to it a little more in the second half. It helps to take some of the pressure off the pass rush.
"I would say we probably saw a little more two-high than we have on first and second down in the past," Bradford added. "When Adrian is in the game, you can almost guarantee that we are going to get a loaded box, seven or eight guys up front."
Bradford said that Carolina effectively varied its coverage, which kept the Vikings "off balance" early on in the game.
Asiata started the game at running back and played a total of 19 snaps, while McKinnon was utilized on 35 snaps. McKinnon finished the first quarter with a 14-yard run for a Minnesota's longest of the day.
"On certain plays, I felt like I got in a rhythm pretty good, and that's just a credit to the offense – throughout the week working hard on the running game and just coming out and getting better," McKinnon said. "The offensive line did a great job of coming out and opening up holes. Me and Matt just tried to plug in what we saw and get those three-, four-, five-yard runs."
The Vikings were without starting left tackle Matt Kalil on the offensive line, who was added to the injured reserve list last week, and left guard Alex Boone left the game with a hip injury midway through the second quarter. T.J. Clemmings started in place of Kalil, and Jeremiah Sirles stepped in for Boone.
Zimmer was happy with the production of both Clemmings and Sirles.
"[T.J.] did a nice job in pass protection, used his hands well," Zimmer said. "There were some really good things in the running game."
Sirles is able to play a number of positions on the offensive line, which Zimmer said makes him a valuable asset to the team. In the week leading up to Carolina, the Vikings had been working Sirles out at guard, so he was fresh off reps there when Boone was sidelined.
"He went in there and did a really good job," Zimmer said. "He got to the second level – did a nice job in pass protection."
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner split the calls between pass and run fairly evenly, with 28 passing plays and 24 carries. Sirles and Clemmings worked with the rest of the unit to protect Bradford and carve out room for the run game, and McKinnon said he felt the difference of less pressure by the Panthers at the line due to Peterson being out.
"Any time you don't have that many bodies in the box, there's always room to breathe and find a hole," McKinnon said. "It's just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunities that they gave us."
Although pleased with their step forward at Carolina, the Vikings see room for significant improvement in their run game, and they will continue working to get there. In 2015, Minnesota averaged 4.7 yards per carry. McKinnon totaled 271 yards on 52 carries, an average of 5.2 per touch.
When the Vikings faced the Giants last season, McKinnon averaged 12.7 yards per carry, racking up 89 yards and two touchdowns on seven attempts. As Minnesota prepares to once again host New York, this time on Monday Night Football, McKinnon is assuming responsibility for bettering the Vikings run game.
"As a player, I always feel like I have a chip on my [shoulder] – like I have something to prove," McKinnon said. "So any time I have the opportunity to contribute, I have that on my shoulder to try to give what I can for the guys."
View exclusive images shot by the team photographer (IG: vikingsphotog) from the Sept. 25 game against the Panthers.