The Minnesota Vikings have one of the best running backs in the NFL in Adrian Peterson, a perfect package of speed and power.
When Peterson is on his game, he can make it a long day for opposing defenses.
Yet, going into Sunday’s matchup with the 49ers in Minnesota, San Francisco has the perfect antidote: Patrick Willis.
Willis, an All-Pro inside linebacker, has been one of the best linebackers in the league since he was drafted in 2007, the same year the Vikings drafted Peterson. His leadership and ability to range from sideline to sideline have helped make the 49ers one of the NFL’s top defenses against the run.
This season, after two games, San Francisco is No. 6 against the rush, allowing just 63.5 yards per game and has allowed just four rushing touchdowns over the past 19 regular-season games, according to CBS Sports.
Playing in the middle of the field with fellow All-Pro inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman and behind a rock-solid front three anchored by lineman Justin Smith, Willis is all over the field. Peterson, in fact, acknowledges he’s going to have several run-ins with him on Sunday, when the 49ers hope to improve to 3-0 after wins over the Packers and Lions.
“Patrick Willis has earned that nod as the best linebacker in the game,” Peterson told reporters Wednesday. “A lot of other guys that surround him make that defense good, too.”
Peterson, who has returned this season after tearing a knee ligament last season, has been effective his first two games. In the season opener, he rushed for 84 yards and two touchdowns; last week he had 60 yards rushing and 20 yards in catches. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
On Wednesday, he recalled a hit Willis got on him in 2007 in their first meeting. Peterson was making a cut to his left when Willis overwhelmed him.
“He got me on that one,” Peterson told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. Peterson said he was at a bit of a disadvantage because he was cutting when he was hit.
“You can’t cut and lower your shoulder and think you’re going to run him over,” Peterson said. “Some guys you can get away with it. But he’s a different person, a different player. That’s not happening.”
Willis last season had his lowest career tackle total (97), the first time in his pro career he’s been under 100 – but was part of a defense that was among the best in the league. In previous seasons, he’s had totals of 135, 109, 114 and 101. He also has 17 sacks and five interceptions. This year, Willis in two games has 15 tackles.
In offseason ratings done by ESPN in April, Willis was ranked the NFL’s No. 1 linebacker.
Said Matt Williamson of Scouts, Inc., to ESPN: “Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot. He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses.”
And on Sunday, we’ll get to see Peterson and Willis go head-to-head. It should be a good show.