When the Washington Redskins opened in training camp in late July, Adrian Peterson wasn't even on the roster. Now he might be the most important player on Washington's offense.
Yes, the quarterback is generally the most important piece in any offense, and the Redskins are no different with Alex Smith, for whom they gave up a third-round pick and a starting cornerback before signing him to a $94 million contract. And surely the greatest strength of Washington's attack was its powerful and athletic offensive line…until 60% of its starters were wiped out by injuries the last two weeks. Also, there's Jordan Reed, who is one of the NFL's most productive tight ends when healthy, and he's played in all eight games so far this year, leading the team in receptions.
Meanwhile, Peterson plays the game's most fungible position, which was underscored when the Redskins found him available after their ground-game Plan A, rookie second-rounder Derrius Guice, went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason. And, yes, Peterson is 33 years old, an age at which most running backs are former NFL players. But when opposing defenses start formulating a game plan to stop Washington's offense, their eyes are immediately drawn to #26.
At least, that's the case with the Redskins' next opponent.
"We have a lot of attention on him, obviously, he's a good running back," said defensive tackle Beau Allen, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers will welcome Peterson and company to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. "He's been doing it for a long, long time and I think he's still got a lot of juice left. So that's one of our primary focuses…shutting down their running game, shutting down number 26. I think he's a good back, so we definitely need to do everything we can to eliminate him in the run game."
Washington's offense has gotten just 850 receiving yards out of its wideouts this season, the second-lowest total in the league to Buffalo's 830. Philadelphia's tight ends have out-produced the Redskin wide receivers, and that was before Washington lost deep threat Paul Richardson (20 catches for 262 yards) to injured reserve this week. The Redskins have gotten the lowest percentage of their receiving yards from wideouts of any team this year, and Smith has gone back to operating a low-risk, short-passing attack after one outlier of a season in Kansas City in 2017. The Redskins' leading pass-catcher is Reed, and second is running back Chris Thompson, who is injured and will not play on Sunday.
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Peterson, meanwhile, is humming along with 604 rushing yards, fifth-best in the NFL. He was held in check by Atlanta last week (and, tellingly, the Redskins lost by 24 points) but prior to that he had topped 97 yards in four of Washington's last five wins, all victories. Those numbers certainly caught the eye of Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
"That one stat that jumps out at you is that they're 5-0 when Peterson runs for 90 yards or more and they're 0-3 when he doesn't," said Koetter. "That tells you who you better concentrate on stopping."
It's fair to note, as always, that conflating high rushing totals with victories can blur the lines of causality. Teams that are well ahead on the scoreboard tend to run more, and thus finish with higher rushing totals. Sometimes a team does well in that category because it's winning; sometimes doing well in that category helps lead to winning.
That said, Peterson has been effective this season well before his team has put a game away. On his runs when the game is tied, he has averaged 5.0 yards per try on 25 attempts. He has 55 runs when his team is up by a single score (eight points or less) and is averaging 4.8 yards in that situation. Yes, it's even better when the Redskins are up by two scores (5.4 yards per carry on 33 runs) but he's clearly helping them get there.
However, when the Redskins are down by one score, Peterson has been held to 11 carries and a 2.09-yard average, and when they're down by two or more scores, he has run 12 times at a 1.33-yard clip. That's part of the point, too: Stop Peterson early, get ahead on the scoreboard and you hamstring one of the best parts of the Washington offense. Maybe the best part.
That's easier said than done, of course. Peterson seems to have recovered the form that put him on a clear path to Canton during his 10 seasons in Minnesota – including a 2015 season in which he led the league in rushing – after two relatively unproductive years split between the Vikings, Cardinals and Saints. He's averaging 4.4 yards per carry and even has 12 catches for 167 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps he's motivated by the fact that he had to wait until mid-August to find a landing spot.
"He's taken on the challenge of when he wasn't playing, to get ready to play," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "Now he's hell-bent to make that a very productive situation. I admire what I've seen from this guy. This guy's been a great player for a long, long time. I think he's fifth in the league in rushing right now – really is a force to be reckoned with. He's running the ball well, he's catching the ball well – big challenge for us."
Buccaneer defenders are certainly not underestimating the rejuvenated veteran back. Defensive tackle Beau Allen grew up in Minnesota and was in high school when Peterson was breaking records for the Vikings. He remembers what Peterson looked like at the time.
"I think he's still got a lot of juice," said Allen. "You don't even think about how long he's been doing it, how long he's been in the NFL, when you watch him on tape."
Veteran defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul put it even more succinctly.
"AP is still AP," he said. "I don't care what they say – he's still AP, so you better not get caught slipping."