If what we witnessed Thursday night at Mall of America Field was any indication, reports of the demise of the running game in the NFL are premature.
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, continuing to amaze folks only 10 months after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery on his ACL and MCL, took over the league rushing lead by gaining 123 yards on 15 carries. Peterson, who trailed Houston's Arian Foster -- the 2011 rushing champion and the 2012 leader after seven weeks -- by seven yards coming into the game, punctuated his performance with a 64-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
But in a rare occurrence, another back trumped Peterson. In the first primetime appearance of his NFL career, Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin put on a fiery offensive show. He rushed 29 times for 135 yards and one touchdown and caught three passes for 79 yards and another touchdown in helping the Bucs to a 36-17 victory. Tampa Bay, which hadn't won in a game away from Raymond James Stadium in more than a year, snapped a nine-game road-losing streak.
Martin, the former Boise State running back who was the next-to-last selection in the first round of the draft last April, ran with power and he ran with explosiveness. He broke a 41-yard run on Tampa Bay's second possession of the game. Then he took a screen pass, stiff-armed a defender and burst for 64 yards and a touchdown, giving the Bucs a 27-10 lead less than 90 seconds into the third quarter. At that point, he had the same number of offensive yards (184) as the Vikings had as a team. Finally, he capped a 16-play, 87-yard drive that took more than nine minutes with a 1-yard scoring plunge.
Asked by an NFL Network reporter how it felt to outshine Peterson, Martin, smiled and said, "Adrian Peterson is a special dude, a great athlete. It feels real nice."
It was an encouraging performance on a lot of fronts for the (3-4) Bucs, whose four losses came by a combined 22 points. Quarterback Josh Freeman, who seems to have settled in comfortably in first-year coordinator Mike Sullivan's offense, had his third consecutive shining performance, completing 19 of 36 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Over the last three games, Freeman has thrown for 910 yards and nine touchdowns.
Defensively, the Bucs pressured Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder relentlessly and forced three turnovers (one interception and two fumbles). Ronde Barber, the Bucs' ageless defensive back who moved from cornerback to free safety this season, his 16th, forced both fumbles and applied pressure on Ponder with his corner blitzes. And after not having a sack since a Week 4 game against Washington, the Bucs sacked Ponder three times.
First-year coach Greg Schiano was impressed by the performance of his Bucs, who were coming off a disappointing 35-28 home loss to New Orleans in which they blew a 21-7 lead, and had to travel in a short week. Tampa Bay became only the fourth of 17 road teams to win a Thursday night game in the last two seasons.
Schiano praised his players after the game, raising his voice to be heard in a boisterous and celebratory locker room.
"A 17-play (actually 16) drive when we needed it most," Schiano said, signaling out the offensive line. "Defense, that's the way to step up and blow your neck, men. That is a team win, the way the Bucs play."
It was a bitter game for the (5-3) Vikings, who had a chance to double their victory total from last season and become one of only three teams with six victories, joining the unbeaten Falcons and the 6-1 Texans. Instead, they took a big step backwards as quarterback Christian Ponder continued to struggle in his second season.
Ponder, who had completed only eight passes in a 21-14 win over Arizona on Sunday, started slowly against the Bucs, misfiring on his first five passes. He finished with 19 completions in 35 attempts for 251 yards and one touchdown-a nicely thrown fade to Percy Harvin in the corner of the end zone-but he threw one interception, giving him eight turnovers in the last 15 quarters.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier blamed himself for Minnesota's unexpected performance at home, where it had won its previous four games this season.
"I don't think I did a good job of getting our guys prepared for this type of game, and it showed in the way we played," Frazier said. "We've got to go back and get some things corrected."
The Vikings could have used a victory Thursday night as a springboard to a challenging schedule in the second half of the season. They play at Seattle, one of the toughest venues in the league, then come home to face Detroit, which they defeated on the road in Week 4, before their bye. In the final six weeks, they have home-and-away games against the Bears and the Packers, two NFC North rivals, plus road games against St. Louis and Houston. If all goes well, the Vikings could be playing for a playoff spot when they face the Packers at home in their final regular season game, but on Thursday night that almost seemed like wishful thinking.
For the Vikings to make a playoff push in the second half of the season, Ponder is going to have to lift his game and Peterson is going to have to continue gashing defenses with his legs. He had the 30th 100-yard rushing performance of his career Thursday night. That broke the team record held by Robert Smith.
"He's one of the angriest runners I've ever seen," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said after Peterson had back-to-back 11-yard bursts in the first half. "All you get is elbows and knees."
On this night, however, Peterson was one-upped by Martin. Together, they demonstrated that there's still a lot of room left for a running game in what has become a passing league.