MINNEAPOLIS — The pass-happy NFL is a trend the Minnesota Vikings have mostly ignored. Their style is Adrian Peterson, and they're sticking with him."Every team is different. Some guys are going to win throwing the ball, but right now running the ball is working well for us so we're going to stick with it until things change," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "We have the best running back in the NFL so we're just going to keep giving him the rock."
Minnesota's insistence on molding offensive strategy around the running game while teams all over the league have posted record passing numbers in recent years has appeared at times outdated and desperate. The Vikings, though, have evidence this plan can still be effective. They're 3-1, one of the early surprises of the season in part because of their commitment to balance when they have the ball.
The Tennessee Titans, who visit the Vikings on Sunday, believe in the same approach but haven't had much of a chance to make it work yet this year at 1-3.
There are several reasons the Vikings are a run-first team, the main one being Peterson.
Close to his pre-knee-injury form, Peterson is 10th in the league with 332 yards rushing. Most importantly, his tough running inside the tackles has loosened up the defense for Ponder to connect with his receivers when and where he needs to. He's the only starter left in the NFL who hasn't thrown an interception.
Lackluster passing is another factor in the direction the Vikings have tilted. Until Ponder's emergence this month, the Vikings haven't had the players with which to build a dangerous throwing game. Even during Brett Favre's age-defying 2009 season, Peterson finished fourth in the league with 314 carries.
"You've seen a lot of teams abandon the running game and just go straight passing," Ponder said. "That's not what we're doing. Good thing is when you're getting two, three, four yards, you're always staying ahead of the sticks and that's important for us."
Keeping the ball on the ground becomes foolish, of course, when a team falls behind in the fourth quarter. The Vikings have been able to keep their tactic intact with a defense that's tied for seventh in the NFL in fewest average points allowed and special teams that produced two touchdowns last week at Detroit.
The Titans, however, have given up a league-high 151 points (almost 38 per game) and had to mostly abandon their use of running back Chris Johnson.
"We're asking our quarterback to have to do a lot more things because of the situation of the game," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "Minnesota's done a great job of not allowing that to happen because the defense has played well and because they've converted on third downs."
Johnson is just three years removed from his 2,000-yard season, but unlike Peterson his production has slowed since getting his lucrative long-term contract. Johnson needed a strong finish last year to reach 1,047 yards on a career-low 4-yard average per carry. Before finding a groove last week at Houston with 141 yards on 25 tries, Johnson totaled 45 yards on 33 attempts over his first three games for the Titans.
"We think he's capable, and we have to give him the opportunity to do it, though," Munchak said.
That's the weekly challenge for any team: knowing how to stick with the run even if it's not working right away.
Passing for 350 yards and losing the game is not at all an uncommon result in the league these days. Despite all the success teams like Green Bay, New England and New Orleans have recently with pass-heavy performances, some of the better NFL teams now tout balanced offenses and fierce defenses like Baltimore, Houston and San Francisco.
One quarter of the season is a small sample size, and other factors can skew the truth behind yardage totals. But only two of the top 10 rushing teams in the league so far this year have losing records, Kansas City and Miami. The Lions, Giants and Saints (ranked first, second and third in passing) are a combined 3-9.
So don't expect the Vikings or the Titans to drift from their strategy anytime soon.
"My confidence is sky high," Peterson said.
The Titans could use some of that. Their defense has been scorched often. The only game they won, against Detroit, they needed 44 points to do it. Stopping Peterson, then, is their top priority.
"He's been a workhorse. On film when you watch him, he looks really good. He's running strong. He's got that same speed, same strength that you're used to seeing out of him," said defensive end Kamerion Wimbley.
Matt Hasselbeck, the 14-year veteran, will start at quarterback for the Titans with Ponder's 2011 draft peer Jake Locker ruled out due to a dislocated non-throwing shoulder. Amid the noise of playing on the road against a team with a strong pass rush, though, the Titans don't want to rely on too many drop-backs by Hasselbeck to move the ball. Johnson, as usual, will be the centerpiece of the game plan.
Blocking for him at left guard will be Steve Hutchinson, who was let go in a cost-cutting youth movement by the Vikings after six seasons. Hutchinson still wanted to play and found a taker in Tennessee.
"If I had played this last contract out with the Vikes that would have put me at 12 years. That sounded like a good number to me, a dozen years," Hutchinson said. "So I don't know if I felt comfortable hanging it up after 11. You get that number in your head."
The Vikings are trying to keep as much out of their heads as possible.
We've all seen teams that have gotten off to good starts and they're nowhere to be found when December rolls around. We don't want to be one of those teams," coach Leslie Frazier said, adding: "There are no champagne bottles being popped in September."