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Can Adrian Peterson Fix the Cardinals Offense?

He may not continue to perform like he did on Sunday, but a rejuvenated ground game could help Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald, and the entire Arizona squad

Larry Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer, and Adrian Peterson Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was tough to put much stock into the trade that sent Saints running back Adrian Peterson to the Cardinals last week. It’s been a long time since Peterson showcased the kind of power, explosiveness, and speed that made him the foundational piece of the Vikings offense and one of the league’s most dominant players for so many years. After coming off of a meniscus injury that robbed him of most of the 2016 season, the 32-year-old former MVP logged just 44 snaps in four games for the Saints, and gained just 81 yards at 3 yards per carry. The most notable thing he did in his time in New Orleans was get into a shouting match with head coach Sean Payton on the sideline.

So on the surface, it looked a lot like Cardinals general manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians had added just another old veteran to an already-too-old offense built around 37-year-old Carson Palmer and 34-year-old Larry Fitzgerald. How was an over-the-hill running back supposed to fix their offensive issues? Coming into Week 6, the Cardinals had ranked 30th in Football Outsiders DVOA and had averaged just 16.2 points per game (29th). Carson Palmer was pressured on 42.5 percent of his dropbacks (28th), and completed just 59 percent of his passes (28th) with six touchdowns (tied for 20th), five picks (tied for fifth most), and an 80.5 passer rating (24th). The combination of running backs Chris Johnson, Kerwynn Williams, Andre Ellington, and— briefly—David Johnson had averaged a league-low 2.59 yards per carry with just one rushing touchdown.

Something unexpected happened in Peterson’s first game in a Cardinals uniform, though: He looked more like a guy in his prime than one due for retirement. Peterson ripped through arm tackles and found daylight with patience. His signature jump cuts and a newfound burst behind the line led to 134 yards and two touchdowns on 26 rushes. The resurgent performance from the team’s new bell-cow back powered Arizona to a 38-33 win against the Buccaneers. Peterson looked like the piece Arizona’s struggling offense had been sorely missing—but is the veteran runner a season-saving acquisition or was that performance just a flash in the pan?

The Cardinals run an aggressive passing game predicated on an unrelenting abundance of precision deep shots downfield. There’s a high degree of difficulty in running this style of pass attack. Palmer must be accurate, and his receivers must get off the jam, get downfield, and win at the catch point, and the offensive line must protect their quarterback long enough for these downfield plays to develop. In 2015, we saw the platonic ideal of what Arians’s “no risk it, no biscuit” mantra could produce: Palmer was an MVP candidate that year and led his team to a 13-3 record. He finished with 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns and 11 picks, and a 104.6 rating, and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt for the fifth-highest mark ever for a quarterback with 500 attempts, per Football Outsiders. He led the NFL in DYAR, DVOA, and QBR, and helmed one of the most terrifying offenses in the league, which saw a league-high 27 percent of its passes travel at least 16 yards downfield.

Every NFL offense rides a razor-thin line between success and failure—but for the Cardinals’ high-wire act, as Ringer colleague Robert Mays wrote last year, “even a tiny slip can bring the whole show crashing down.” In 2015, a jammed index finger suffered in Week 15 was enough to affect Palmer’s accuracy and throw everything out of whack. In 2016, pass protection slipped, and after surrendering just 27 sacks in 2015 (tied for fourth), Arizona gave up 41 (tied for 25th) last year. The system couldn’t function nearly as well, and that’s the major issue this season again. Going into Sunday’s game with the Bucs, Arizona had allowed 13 sacks (dead last) and surrendered a league-worst 21 hits, 68 hurries, and 102 pressures. The team had simply been unable to deal with the opposing pass rush, and Palmer’s ability to direct the downfield passing attack had fallen apart.

Unfortunately, there are no starter-quality offensive linemen the team can just sign off the street. So how do you fix such a fundamental issue? Getting left tackle D.J. Humphries and left guard Alex Boone back from injury on Sunday did make a big impact, but neither has played well enough to turn the team around. The good news is that an efficient and explosive passing game doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it can be strengthened by a dangerous rushing attack. The easiest way to beat a good pass rush is to run the ball right at it: The run game takes advantage of keyed up and overexcited defenders that have their ears pinned back and aggressively rush upfield to try to hit the quarterback. An effective ground game slows that pass rush because now defensive ends must remember to man their gaps, keep their heads on a swivel to look for opposing blockers, and avoid running past the play. They’re thinking, not attacking.

Of course, Arizona hasn’t had a run game to protect Palmer this year, either. Johnson’s out until at least Thanksgiving, and the combination of Johnson, Williams, and Ellington hasn’t gotten the job done. On Sunday, Peterson showed a combination of power, balance, and vision that the team hadn’t seen at running back since Johnson went out in Week 1. You could see it on his first run; Peterson took the handoff, cut away from a defender in the backfield, and powered through three or four Buccaneers defenders to pick up 7 yards, grinding out the last several with leg churn and determination.

GIF of Adrian Peterson taking a handoff

His second run of the day was more of the same: He bounced behind the line to find a running lane, burst forward, and put his head down to pick up another few yards through contact.

GIF of Adrian Peterson picking up yards on a run through contact

Later that drive, Peterson broke free for a touchdown. He pressed the line of scrimmage, jumped back to his right, and then hurdled through the line, putting the pedal to the metal once both his feet touched down to leave Tampa Bay’s defense in the dust.

GIF of Adrian Peterson breaking away from Tampa Bay’s defense

Peterson’s always been a volume rusher, a guy that wears down defenses and makes big plays once he’s in rhythm. And the more carries he got on Sunday, the more comfortable he seemed to be. He broke away for big runs several times as the game went on, displaying all the traits—vision, strength, and explosiveness—that helped make him one of the league’s toughest players to tackle.

GIF of Adrian Peterson picking up yards on a big run

Peterson could be a force for the team in short yardage and goal-line situations too, and late in the game, he took on three Buccaneers defenders to punch through for his second touchdown.

GIF of Adrian Peterson running the ball for a touchdown

A newfound run game was a major factor behind the success of the Cardinals passing game. Palmer was pressured on a less terrible 37.5 percent of his snaps, per Pro Football Focus, which marked an improvement up front, and the team found success utilizing play-action fakes. On a third-and-2 from their own 33-yard line early in the second quarter, Tampa Bay loaded up for what they thought would be a run; it wasn’t, and when three Buccaneers defenders rushed up to try to stuff Peterson behind the line, Palmer unleashed a pass downfield behind them to a streaking Jaron Brown.

GIF of Carson Palmer passing downfield to Jaron Brown

Later that same drive, the threat of a Peterson run helped create an Arizona touchdown. Taking the snap, Palmer faked the handoff to his running back, which drew no less than five Tampa Bay defenders forward at the snap, including safety T.J. Ward. (Think they respect the threat Peterson brings to Arizona’s offense?) With Ward out of position, Fitzgerald snuck behind him (and the rest of the Buccaneers defense) and Palmer hit his receiver for the score.

GIF of Carson Palmer throwing a touchdown pass to a receiver

While watching the Cardinals offense come to life on Sunday, that razor-thin margin between success and failure—where one or two small deficiencies can make everything tumble down—kept coming to mind. And sure, Peterson’s effect on the Cardinals offense is just a one-game sample size and his big day came against a banged-up Buccaneers defense. But if Peterson can keep playing like the younger version of himself that we saw on Sunday, a more robust run game could have major implications for Palmer and the team’s passing attack.

One important statistic stood out: In the team’s first five games, the Cardinals picked up 118 yards on 52 first-down carries and averaged just 2.27 yards per tote. On Sunday, Peterson picked up 96 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry on 15 first-down runs (and got both his scores on first downs). That type of early-down success not only keeps opposing defenses guessing and helps hold the pass rush at bay, but it keeps the Cardinals on schedule, out of second- and third-and-long situations, which in turn opens up a playbook. On second-and-3 or second-and-4, for instance, a play-caller can do just about anything he wants. He can call a run to simply try to pick up the first down, and a lot of defenses are going to gear up to stop that. He can also dial up a deep shot down the field, which can be not only effective, but relatively safe. If the team misses, they still have a very manageable third-down situation. Success running on first down can be a total game changer.

I’m not ready to say that Peterson’s going to save the Cardinals offense and propel them back to their 2015 form. He’ll need to replicate it against the Rams’ tough front, the Seahawks’ stout defense, and the Jaguars’ eleventy-million-dollar defensive line before I truly buy in. But don’t underestimate the impact that a healthy and explosive Peterson has on opposing defenses. That version of Peterson gives the Cardinals a chance to achieve balance and could help them finally unlock a dormant downfield passing attack. In a wide-open NFC playoff field, that could be enough to propel the Cardinals into the postseason.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Carson Palmer threw 45 touchdown passes in 2015; he threw 35.