By Aaron Wilson The Baltimore Sun
11:03 PM EST, December 5, 2013
Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson reaffirms with every trademark stiff arm, jump cut and burst of speed why he's the most dangerous running back in the NFL.
Now he's the Ravens' problem heading into Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Ravens are bracing for a pivotal encounter against Peterson that represents the greatest test so far for their revamped group of inside linebackers. Since Ray Lewis retired in February, Daryl Smith has stabilized the middle linebacker spot while playing opposite a platooning group of weak-side inside linebackers in Jameel McClain, Josh Bynes and rookie Arthur Brown.
If the Ravens can contain Peterson, who rushed for 211 yards Sunday in an overtime win over the Chicago Bears, it could help them win their third consecutive game and maintain their edge in the hunt for the final AFC playoff berth.
"No question, Adrian Peterson might run the angriest of anybody in this league," Smith said. "He has everything in a running back's repertoire: speed, quickness, cuts, power. The frustrating thing is you can have every gap closed off and he just wiggles through or bounces outside and outruns somebody.
"It's so tough. Every time he's on the field, you've got to know where he is and it's all hands on deck. When he has the football, you've got to be alert."
This game also is important as the Ravens continue to evaluate the inside linebacker position, which has undergone many changes since last season.
A year after finishing 20th against the run (122.8 rushing yards a game) with Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe as the primary inside linebackers, the Ravens now rank sixth in the NFL in rushing defense. They're allowing just 100.1 yards per game this season with two rushing touchdowns against them, compared with 15 rushing touchdowns last season.
This season has represented something of a chemistry experiment at inside linebacker, given all the change. The Ravens were forced to overhaul after a rocky offseason in which they lost a future Hall of Famer in Lewis, Ellerbe signed with the Miami Dolphins and former Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Rolando McClain abruptly retired after being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
"We all just collectively do our part at whatever we're asked do," said Bynes, who started the first six games before being replaced by Jameel McClain. "Everybody compares us to the past, but we're not worried about that. All of us can play and do it all. The best thing is to have guys that are interchangeable.
"Obviously, they like what I've been doing and love what Daryl and Jameel does as well. All of us are doing a good job and making plays."
The Ravens added a veteran presence with Smith in June, signing the former Jacksonville Jaguars starter to a one-year, $2.125 million contract. Now he leads the Ravens with 95 tackles to go with 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 15 pass deflections.
"I think Daryl has had an excellent year here, coming in … and really learning this whole system," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "We do a lot of stuff, and he's the guy who has to know it all."
A pending unrestricted free agent, Smith would like to continue his career in Baltimore.
"I've really enjoyed my time here," Smith said. "Of course, I would love to stay. I'm not really thinking about it right now. I'm focused on each week and we'll talk about it later on."
Bynes, McClain and Brown have combined for 72 tackles as they continue to split time. Bynes and McClain have operated primarily in the base defense, and Brown, a second-round draft pick, contributes in the nickel package as a blitzer and cover linebacker.
McClain has started the past six games since beginning the season on the physically unable to perform list because of a bruised spinal cord.
"The fact that Jameel came back at all has been a blessing, and the fact that he's playing like he's playing is really incredible," Pees said. "Art has really come on. Each game he gets a little better, as all rookies kind of do. Josh Bynes is just a great kid to have, done a heck of a job at linebacker. I think those guys have transitioned very well."
Green Bay Packers rookie Eddie Lacy is the lone running back to eclipse the 100-yard mark against the Ravens this season after they allowed four backs to hit the mark last season.
"It's been pretty good," Smith said. "We'll look back and measure up everything after this is all over."
Although the Ravens have managed to slow some solid running backs this year, they aren't in Peterson's caliber.
Peterson is the leading rusher in the NFL with 1,208 yards and 10 touchdown runs. He's rushed for 10,057 career yards and 86 touchdowns, the highest of any back since the former Oklahoma star entered the league seven years ago.
Peterson is averaging 99.6 yards per game and five yards per carry for his career. Only Detroit Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders had a higher average per game (99.8) going back to the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Peterson runs with bad intentions, frequently embarrassing defenders by lowering his shoulder pads to plow through them or leaving them behind with his rare elusiveness.
"We've got to get Peterson down on the ground," Bynes said. "It's got to be gang tackles. It's about more than just contact. It's getting him to stop his feet because he has so much speed and the power to muscle you and the quickness to make you miss in the hole. He has an excellent feel for the game. He's the all-around back, so everybody has to have their antennae up."
The last time the Ravens played the Vikings, Peterson's 143 yards on 22 carries were a big factor in the Ravens' 33-31 loss on Oct. 18, 2009. That included a 58-yard dash up the sideline in which he ran away from pursuit.
"We really hated ourselves at that moment because we knew we wanted to bottle him up," McClain said. "It's hard. He's a powerful runner. He's very explosive, and he has the balance where you can't just come in and hit him. You have to wrap him up.
"You get the chance to go against the best. Our mentality is no different than anybody else's mentality, but the result remains to be seen."
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