EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – For all the time Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings have spent studying his fumbling problem, knowledge and strategy will mean nothing if he loses the ball this week in New Orleans.
The extra-aggressive Saints are sure to be trying to strip Peterson of his most prized possession in Thursday's season opener, with the NFC championship game memory still fresh. The All-Pro running back's 122-yard, three-touchdown performance on that epic January night was tainted by two fumbles, plus a botched handoff with Brett Favre.
Peterson, however, believes he's found a cure.
"Holding it high," he said Monday. "I found out by studying myself that when I'm going down I kind of brace myself with the hand I'm carrying the ball in, and that's leaving opportunities for those guys that are reaching and scraping and punching for that ball."
So how does he avoid that?
"Just not brace yourself as much," Peterson said. "I'm a pretty tough guy, so just keep the ball high and fall down. Like you said, it is all off instinct. But when that becomes a problem, you sit there and say, 'Hey, I've got to eliminate doing this.'"
He'd like to take better advantage of defenders, too, when they eschew proper wrapping-up technique for the riskier attempt to get the ball out.
"I look forward for guys to try to tackle me and tackle the ball," Peterson said. "They might not be on the field too long if they continue to do that."
Since the start of his career in 2007, Peterson leads the league with 20 fumbles, losing 13 of them.
"He's such a talented back and he runs so hard that I think it's almost instinctual for him that he lets that ball loose a little bit sometimes," Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "I don't know how you correct that. I don't know how he corrects it. I hope he hasn't corrected it, to be honest with you. But he's a very, very talented back, and he definitely has my respect."
Running backs coach Eric Bieniemy led the team's offseason review of Peterson's habits, yielding an extensive video montage of the turnovers and near-turnovers. The Vikings also consulted New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin and former running back Tiki Barber, who overcame early-career fumbling problems by changing his carry style to a higher and tighter look.
For all the ability Favre has to run a team, read a defense and fire the ball downfield, Peterson remains the fulcrum of this offense. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell didn't flinch Monday when asked if he still considers this a run-first system.
"Absolutely," Bevell said. "I think that we need to try to get Adrian the ball as much as we can."
Favre recalled Sunday the enjoyment he had in last year's season opener when Peterson ran for 180 yards and three touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns.
"I had the best seat in the house," Favre said. "I said, 'This is going to be a lot of fun this year.'"
Perhaps just as important for Peterson against the Saints, or against any team for that matter, are his blitz pickups in pass protection. Peterson has struggled in that area in the past, a major reason why Chester Taylor took the majority of third-down snaps over the past three years, but Bevell praised Peterson's progress.
"I'd say he's come a long way even in these last two weeks," Bevell said.
So Peterson will take the field at the Superdome later this week, eager to deliver some helmet-jarring hits on the Saints defense to pay back their treatment of Favre in the playoffs.
"I always work hard, but it felt different this offseason," Peterson said, adding: "It just made me even hungrier."
The taste of that bitter overtime loss is still there for Peterson as much as it is for anyone else wearing purple.
"We've got to go out there and stay focused and eliminate the mistakes that we had last year against those guys," Peterson said, "and we'll definitely win."
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in Metairie, La., contributed to this report.