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Healthier Adrian Peterson faces challenge in Cowboys

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Peterson or bust if Thompson doesn't go? (0:38)

Mike Clay explains what to expect from Adrian Peterson if Chris Thompson cannot suit up against the Cowboys. (0:38)

ASHBURN, Va. -- The formula, thus far, has been simple for the Washington Redskins: When Adrian Peterson runs well, they win. When he doesn’t, they lose.

That’s why the health of the 33-year-old running back entering Sunday’s game vs. the Dallas Cowboys becomes crucial. It's more about his effectiveness than availability.

He has been battling knee and shoulder issues that might have sidelined other players. Yet he rushed for 97 yards in a win over Carolina.

“Night and day,” said Peterson, of how he feels this week vs. last. “I can tell that I’m healthier than I was this time last Thursday. ... That’s all positive. I’m able to move more freely, back to normal. A couple restrictions, but outside of that it’s starting to get back to normal.”

If he plays well, he could surpass former Cowboy Tony Dorsett for ninth place on the all-time rushing list. But Peterson needs 125 yards to do so.

Peterson has topped 90 yards rushing each of the Redskins' three wins, averaging 104.3 yards. In their two losses, he has gained a combined 26 yards. They struggle if they are forced to rely on the passing game alone. That’s why they were fortunate, and appreciative, Peterson played through injuries last week.

“The thing I'm most impressed with is how he's played with the pain and fought through it,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “I told him, 'I had a lot [of] respect for you before we got you, but now it's off the charts.' ... It's just a great tribute to him as far as his work ethic and dedication to the game."

Now the task is not only to keep him relatively healthy, but to run well vs. Dallas. In the last three seasons vs. Dallas, the Redskins have averaged 77 yards and 3.5 yards per carry -- while going 1-5.

Last year, for example, the Redskins rushed for a combined 105 yards and 3.08 yards per carry. Some of it stemmed from the state of the Redskins’ offensive line: In the first meeting, four original starters weren’t in the game -- and three of the five are no longer on the roster.

But it’s also Dallas’ defensive front seven that gives Washington fits. The Cowboys have tweaked their style from past years and aren’t using quite as much pre-snap movement. Their fast linebackers create issues for teams trying to run; they force teams to abandon double-teams on defensive linemen.

The Cowboys rank second in the NFL in yards-per-carry allowed at 3.46 and, among teams that have played six games, are second in total rushing yards against.

“Their strong suit is the front seven,” Peterson said.

The Redskins’ strong suit is Peterson -- especially with receiver Jamison Crowder (ankle) out, receiver Paul Richardson (knee/shoulder) doubtful and running back Chris Thompson (rib/knee) a game-time decision. The good news for Washington is its original starting offensive line could be intact for the first time since Week 2.

Peterson said the conversations with his line have evolved in the two months he has been with Washington.

“Just throughout the week it’s little things we might touch on when we’re out at practice,” he said. “The lines of communication have been opened. As long as it stays like that, it should be good.”

Peterson said he told the linemen on certain runs they needed to speed it up. Then he discovered that maybe he had to change. That was noticeable when he ran out of shotgun formation, gaining 55 yards on eight carries last week vs. Carolina. He now has 23 rushes for 103 yards out of that look, according to ESPN Stats & Information, but Sunday was his most consistent effort.

“It wasn’t really working out, so that was a situation where I was like, ‘Hey, you guys do what you do and I’ll take a better approach of slowing myself down,’” Peterson said. “Last week we were really in sync with some of the runs we like to do out of the gun, and a big part of that was those guys doing a great job and me executing and being patient and taking my time up top.”

Sunday represents the third time Texas native Peterson will play vs. Dallas, the last game coming in 2013 when he rushed for 140 yards. Peterson grew up a Cowboys fan and estimates 75 percent of his family will still want to see Dallas win Sunday.

“I can’t be a Cowboys fan Sunday,” Peterson said. “It’s time to work.”