Last week, Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton said stopping the run would be the defense’s “calling card” this season.
Those words will be tested today against the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson, the undisputed best running back in the game and last season’s NFL Most Valuable Player.
There isn’t a task in the game today tougher than trying to stop Peterson from running wild, or at the very least, slowing him down a bit. But it’s one Horton is standing up to. He thinks his front seven can stifle the one called “All Day.”
“You challenge men, we’re going to be challenged by Adrian and see how we hold up,” Horton said Thursday. “It’s not bulletin board material, but it’s a challenge. We think we’re pretty good at stopping the run. ... So it’s one of those ‘When the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.’ ”
The Browns have had success thus far stopping run under Horton. After holding the Miami Dolphins to just 20 yards rushing on 23 attempts (0.9 average) in Week 1 and the Baltimore Ravens to 99 yards on 36 carries (2.8 average), the Browns are tied for fourth in run defense (59.5 yards allowed per game) in the NFL. So when Horton praises his front seven, it’s warranted.
But Peterson, the unstoppable force, hasn’t met an immovable object since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in 2011. Upon returning from the serious knee injury last season, he ran for 2,097 yards, 9 yards short of breaking the single-season record held by Eric Dickerson, leading the Vikings to the playoffs. More than 1,000 of those yards (the number differs from source to source) came after contact.
Peterson even defies common football logic. Last year, he averaged 5.84 yards per carry with fewer than eight men in the box. A common strategy to stop the run is to load up the box with more defenders. But with eight or more men in the box, he actually got better, averaging 6.45 yards per carry.
“He’s just a monster,” defensive end Ahtyba Rubin said. “He definitely is going to be the best running back we see this year. Especially with the stuff he did last year, it’s going to be a great challenge for us. We’re doing pretty good defensively. We’re stepping up the challenge and hopefully we’ll pull a win out.”
The last time Peterson faced the Browns, it ended ugly in Cleveland. He bulldozed his way to 180 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries (7.2 average), including a highlight-reel, 64-yard touchdown run in which he tossed former Browns cornerback Eric Wight aside like a rag doll. Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson remembers the carnage.
“We were able to contain him somewhat in the first half and I believe in the second half is when he exploded, and I remember it,” Jackson said. “There’s not too many guys that [were] here when that happened, so we got a real test coming up. We pride ourselves on stopping the run so we got a big test ahead of us and I think we’re up for it.”
These Browns still won’t have a healthy front seven. Backup outside linebacker Quentin Groves is out with a sprained ankle, but Rubin, who missed the first two games with a calf injury, could return to the starting lineup against the Vikings.
The other starting defensive end, Desmond Bryant, says the problem with Peterson isn’t that he excels in one or two areas. It’s that he doesn’t have a weakness.
“He has the ability to beat you with his quickness, his speed, but then again he can lower his helmet and run you over,” Bryant said. “He’s very versatile and kind of a dynamic back, a back that hasn’t been seen for a while in this league.”
Strong safety T.J. Ward, who could see many more snaps this week closer to the line of scrimmage, can only be hopeful in a one-on-one situation.
“Just make the tackle, get him down,” Ward said. “Somebody’s going to win and hopefully that’s me.”
A lot of defenders have probably thought the same thing trying to bring Peterson down. And a lot have been unsuccessful. Horton needs his calling card, his ace of a run defense, to find a different result.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.