Squat lifts, MRI exams and preseason games tell you only so much.
The real measure for 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman and his surgically repaired left knee is to test himself against another man who is considered the best at his position. As it happens, a player with that description will be headed right at him – again, again and again, most likely – during Monday night’s season opener.
Like Bowman, the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson is considered the top player on his team. And like Bowman, the veteran running back is out to prove himself after missing all but one game of the 2014 season, in his case because of a suspension related to child abuse charges involving his then-4-year-old son. The NFL reinstated Peterson in April.
For a league that loves to use the “iron-sharpens-iron” adage, Monday’s matchup promises a storm of sparks.
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“This is a (running) back that you want to face, just to see if you’re back at the level of where I was at,” Bowman said.
This is a (running) back that you want to face, just to see if you’re back at the level of where I was at.
49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman
Both players enter the game hoping to break dubious streaks. The 49ers have not beaten the Vikings in three meetings since Peterson joined the league in 2007.
Peterson, however, never has reached the 100-yard mark against the 49ers and has yet to score a touchdown against them. Only 10 other teams can say they’ve held Peterson, a six-time Pro Bowl player and the NFL’s 2012 MVP, below 100 yards in every meeting, and most of those are AFC squads that have faced him only once or twice. In fact, Peterson’s 2.95 yards per attempt against the 49ers is his lowest against any opponent.
That’s largely because the 49ers held him to three yards on 14 carries – a career-worst 0.2 average – in 2007. Peterson was a rookie that season. So was inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who led the 49ers in tackles that day and recovered a fumble.
Later, Peterson would call it the worst game of his career.
“I felt like I was getting attacked by bees,” he said.
Peterson would do better in the next two games. He finished with 85 rushing yards in 2009 and 86 yards in 2012. Bowman had a game-high 18 tackles in the most recent meeting, and he’s been working to return to that level of play since his January 2014 injury that left him with multiple torn ligaments in his left knee.
He had surgery the following month, and since then, his comeback has been akin to reaching a series of peaks – his first sprint, his first practice, his first full-contact session – each a bit higher than the last.
Bowman made a brief, but impactful, appearance in the 49ers’ second preseason game. By the third, against the Broncos, he looked ready for the season. He blitzed, broke up passes, stopped nine ballcarriers and had two sacks. He clearly was the best player on the field – perhaps for either team – in the first half.
I felt like I was getting attacked by bees.
Vikings’ Adrian Peterson on being held to three rushing yards by the 49ers in a 2007 game
“He looks better,” safety Eric Reid said when asked how Bowman compares to his pre-injury self. “I know that he didn’t play much. But on the plays he was in, he was in on every tackle.”
“Just watching him, it was the preseason, but it doesn’t look like he’s coming off an ACL injury,” said Peterson, who tore his ACL in 2011. “So with that, I have so much respect for him because I know how hard it is to get up every morning and push yourself to get back to 100 percent. And the way that he is playing, it’s just a testimony of the hard work he put in. It’s showing, so I’m happy for him.”
Bowman’s return would be a boost in any season, but it’s magnified after a dizzying offseason for the 49ers. Willis is no longer around. Neither are Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Aldon Smith, who gave San Francisco one of the league’s most tenacious defenses, especially against the run, over the past four years.
Bowman is the most notable player left. Now he’s the unquestioned nucleus of a 49ers defense that wants to prove it’s still capable of controlling a running back like Peterson.
“We feed off each other,” Reid said. “But especially when a guy at the center of the defense is making plays. That’s how this team works.”