Updated: March 25th, 2014 11:02pm
Zulgad: Will Peterson catch more passes in Norv Turner's offense?

Zulgad: Will Peterson catch more passes in Norv Turner's offense?

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Vikings held a 10-3 lead over the Atlanta Falcons early in the fourth quarter of Adrian Peterson's first NFL regular-season game in 2007, when the running back maneuvered his way past a blitzing DeAngelo Hall and presented himself as a target for Tarvaris Jackson.

The quarterback managed to get an off-the-target pass to the rookie and Peterson managed to get both hands on the ball. It popped straight up in the air, settled back into Peterson's grasp and he was off to the races.

Sixty yards later, Peterson had his first NFL touchdown and shortly thereafter the Vikings had a 24-3 victory.

It turns out that touchdown was far more the exception than the rule.

Peterson finished the 2007 season with 13 touchdowns but that juggling grab at the Metrodome would be the only way that came via the air. Peterson wouldn't catch another touchdown pass until the 2010 season.

Of the 91 touchdowns he has in seven NFL seasons, only five have come in the passing game. Peterson's career-high in receptions came in 2009, when he caught 43 passes from Brett Favre for 436 yards. Favre knew that getting the ball into Peterson's hands in any manner possible was good for business.

Two of the knocks on Peterson throughout his Hall of Fame career have been this: He isn't good in pass protection and he has questionable skills when it comes to the passing game.

Safe to say the first criticism is accurate. Peterson has been replaced by Chester Taylor and then Toby Gerhart on third down for much of his career because he does struggle to pick up blitzes.

The second criticism? It appears we're about to find out what type of receiver Peterson will be when given a chance.

Shortly after he was hired as the Vikings' offensive coordinator this winter, Norv Turner talked about getting Peterson the football in space and new coach Mike Zimmer appears to be on board with the idea.

Ben Goessling of ESPN.com wrote Tuesday that Zimmer told the network the Vikings would like to run Peterson "into a few less bodies, so there's not 11 of them hitting him. That's part of the thing about opening the field up, spreading the ball around a little bit, getting the ball in space."

This makes perfect sense given the fact that the Vikings want the 29-year-old Peterson to take less of a beating - 30 is the magic age, and not in a good way, for many running backs - and also because it would give Matt Cassel another option in the passing game and create potential matchup problems for defenses.

It also fits with Turner's idea of making his running back part of the passing game.

As brilliant as Peterson was two years ago in rushing for 2,097 yards, then-offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave did nothing to discourage defenses from putting multiple players in the box and seeing if Peterson could simply elude or overpower them.

"I'm watching a game the other day, and the two safeties are just creeping closer and closer (to the line of scrimmage)," Zimmer said, per Goessling, while at the NFL owners meetings in Orlando. "This guy's getting hit a lot. He's a fantastic runner, and if we can get him in space, he's going to do a lot of damage."

That's the thing about the Vikings' offense. If Cassel can do a competent job, Turner should be able to utilize the playmakers in a way that Musgrave simply failed to do.

Imagine the matchup problems Peterson could cause if he is able to catch passes that provide him with a 5- to 10-yard gain the moment he receives the ball? That not only would benefit the Vikings, but could lengthen Peterson's career.

The other interesting angle to all of this is going to be who ends up being Peterson's backup and if Turner is going to decide that running back is worthy of replacing Peterson on a regular basis on third down.

The Vikings have brought back Matt Asiata, but it's expected they also will address the position either in the final stages of free agency or, more likely, in the draft.

This is not to say that Peterson can suddenly become great in pass protection, but it certainly has to be tempting to Turner to find a way, even if it's creative, to keep the 2010 NFL MVP in the game on such a key down.

Brad Childress and Darrell Bevell never felt comfortable doing this on a consistent basis and that continued when Leslie Frazier and Musgrave ran the show, although the latter tandem did leave him in more often.

What will Zimmer and Turner decide upon? It wouldn't be surprising if it ends up being to Peterson's liking.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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