Patrick Peterson: The Numbers, The Tape, The Verdict

Patrick Peterson’s talent is obvious, but how is his performance? Image courtesy of Yahoo.

After being selected with the fifth pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, Patrick Peterson quickly made an impression on the league as a member of the Arizona Cardinals. The former LSU cornerback was a Week 1 starter on defense, but would become famous(or infamous if you’re a fan of certain teams) for his work on special teams.

In just his first season, Peterson became a record holder, Pro Bowler and All-Pro selection for his work on special teams. His 699 punt return yards were the most for any rookie ever, while he tied the record for the most punt return touchdowns in a season by anyone, four, and had a game-winning 99-yard punt return against the St. Louis Rams in overtime.

His endeavours on special teams would land him in Hawaii as the NFC’s Pro Bowl Kick Returner as well as all-pro honours for both his punt and kick returning abilities.

Yet, Peterson wasn’t drafted by the Cardinals because of his return ability. The then 20-year-old became the fifth overall pick of his class because of his potential to be a shutdown cornerback. At LSU he had been the leading light of a very talented secondary. A secondary that included Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Morris Claiborne, two first round picks and a Heisman finalist.

The 6’1, 220 lb cornerback ran a 4.34 forty at the combine with a 38″ standing vertical. In other words, Peterson was an almost perfect cornerback prospect from a physical perspective.

Just two years into his career, there are very few reasons to question Peterson’s status as an elite player, he has nine career interceptions, 29 pass deflections and went from a -10.8 Pro Football Focus grade as a rookie to a 9.3 grade this past year. However, just like this study showed with Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, there are a lot of unknowns at the cornerback position that aren’t reflected in the available statistics.

Explaining the Process

Qualifying Plays:
Plays that count:

  • Every snap that has the cornerback in man coverage no matter where the ball is thrown.
  • The above includes sacks, quarterback scrambles and plays where the defensive back has safety help.

Plays that don’t count:

  • Screen plays. Even if the receiver isn’t part of the screen, these plays do not count.
  • Plays where either the receiver or cornerback doesn’t follow through his whole assignment.
  • Zone plays. Any ambiguity in this area will disqualify a play.
  • Any prevent coverage situations.
  • Receptions in the flat without a route run.
  • Running plays(duh!). Including designed quarterback runs.

Failed Coverages:

The ball does not have to be thrown in the defensive back’s direction for the coverage to fail. This is NOT an alysis of how many completions the cornerback allowed, that can be found elsewhere, this is an analysis of how good his coverage is on any given play.

Failed coverages can come at any point of the route, but it is subjective to where the players are on the field in relation to the quarterback. Typically, defensive backs must be within arms reach for underneath/intermediate routes. On deeper passes, there is greater leeway given to the defender.

Failed coverages can be subjective. They must be determined by the situation considering the length of the play and other such variables.

Shut Down:

This category is reserved for those plays when receivers would have to make superhuman catches to beat the coverage. The best example of this is when receivers line up wide and try to run down the sideline, but the defensive back gradually guides them towards the sideline, suffocating the space they have to catch the football in. If a receiver is on the white sideline, he is shut down.

In Position:

This is the opposite of a failed coverage. In order to be ‘In Position’, a defensive back has to be in a position to prevent a relatively well-thrown pass to his assignment.

 

Individual Matchups

No.

Player

Successful Snaps/Coverage Snaps

Percentage

1 Danny Amendola 4/5 80%
2 Stevie Johnson 8/12 66%
3 Calvin Johnson 14/25 56%
4 Brandon Marshall 9/16 56%
5 Percy Harvin 3/6 50%
6 Roddy White 3/6 50%
7 DeSean Jackson 13/28 46%
8 Brandon Gibson 6/13 46%
9 Michael Crabtree 8/19 42%
10 Davone Bess 3/7 42%
11 Michael Jenkins 2/5 40%
12 Brandon Lloyd 3/8 38%
13 Chris Givens 3/8 38%
14 Jeremy Kerley 4/12 33%
15 Brian Hartline 4/12 33%
16 Julian Edelman 4/12 33%
17 Sidney Rice 7/25 28%
18 Julio Jones 3/12 25%
19 Jordy Nelson 1/5 20%
20 Austin Pettis 1/5 20%
21 Tony Scheffler 1/5 20%
22 Legedu Naanee 1/6 16%
23 Golden Tate 2/13 15%
24 James Jones 1/10 10%
25 Randy Moss 0/5 0%
Totals 108 / 180
Averages 4.32 / 7.2 34.12%

*Those with less than four snaps against Peterson were not included.

 Weekly Breakdown

Week 1: Seattle Seahawks
Total qualifying plays: 26
Failed coverages: 7
Shutdowns: 6
In Position: 13

During his first outing of the 2012 season, Peterson trailed Sidney Rice for all but three snaps. Peterson was able to rely on his athleticism for much of this game. Rice is a bulky receiver who can get down the field, but he doesn’t have the agility to run crisp routes or create separation from an athlete of Peterson’s caliber in the open field. He did twice escape Peterson in the endzone on inverted post routes to the far pylon and draw two pass interference penalties, but the only other time he could escape the cornerback was on underneath routes or when he slipped.

There was one play in particular that encapsulated the important aspects of this matchup.

Rice 1

Rice and Peterson are left on an island together. Rice is running a double-move, while Peterson started in eight yards off the line of scrimmage and backed up slightly after the snap. As Rice begins his route, he starts sliding towards the center of the field before taking a decisive step inwards. Once he makes that step, Peterson turns his shoulders and mirrors him looking to play the slant.

In the second part of the above image, Rice’s route is numbered 1-2-3-4. Those numbers represent the points at which he makes a decisive move. When he took the step from 1 to 2, Peterson moved forward to where he is in the image. However, Rice glided between 2 and 3 before taking a decisive turn towards 4. Rice made four movements in his break, whereas Peterson just took one short step forward to be in position for any move inside before one step backwards allowed him to be in position for the deep ball.

By the time Rice got to 3 in his route, Peterson already knew what he was trying to do.

Rice 3

The end result is that Rice is never able to get behind Peterson. His route took so long that Peterson actually has close to two yards of depth and is in a great position to intercept any potential jump ball that may come his way.

Week 2: New England Patriots
Total qualifying plays: 22
Failed coverages: 8
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 13

The Cardinals came into this game with a clear gameplan to stop the Patriots’ short-passing attack. The combination of that gameplan and the short-passing attack meant that even though Tom Brady attempted 46 passes, Peterson only played man coverage 22 times. An early interception was a result of his athleticism and reactions in zone coverage, while he didn’t follow any particular receiver throughout the game.

It was notable that both Wes Welker and Julian Edelman were able to turn Peterson the wrong way on some of their routes. From a stylistic point of view, this was noteworthy throughout the analysis as Peterson struggled more with smaller, quicker receivers than any other kind.

Week 3: Philadelphia Eagles
Total qualifying plays: 31
Failed coverages: 13
Shutdowns: 5
In Position: 13

With Jeremy Maclin missing out through injury, Peterson trailed DeSean Jackson throughout this game. That may have been the plan either way considering their respective levels of speed. Peterson only faced Jason Avant and Damaris Johnson a combined three times, meaning Jackson and Peterson went head-to-head 28 times in total.

Jackson manipulated Peterson with his speed, while the Eagles’ excellent play-calling kept him off-balance throughout the game. Significantly, Peterson tried to deal with Jackson in a variety of ways, lining up over him at a variety of depths from press coverage to 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Although he was beaten twice in the endzone by Jackson when playing press coverage, Peterson played much better when he started off tighter to his assignment.

Jackson 1

On this play, Peterson started 10 yards off the line of scrimmage with 90 yards of unmanned space behind him. He had no safety coverage and his initial movements suggested that he understood that. There was no play-action or double move from Jackson, he simply weaved his deep route from Peterson’s outside shoulder to his inside shoulder, before fading back outside towards the sideline once he was level with the defensive back.

In this position, the last thing Peterson should be giving Jackson is the deep ball. Peterson is very fast physically, but here his technique and reaction speed failed him.

Jackson 2

Because he didn’t keep Jackson in front of him or move his feet quickly enough to shift his weight into a position he could turn and run with the receiver, Peterson was ultimately left behind Jackson. Peterson’s technique was so detrimental to his footing that he landed on the ground as he tried to recover, while Jackson ran free down the right sideline.

An overthrown pass from Michael Vick saved his blushes.

Peterson did get a significant amount of safety help with Jackson throughout the game, but he didn’t handle this particular play well when he was left on an island. Fortunately for the Cardinals, it was an issue that can be straightened out with coaching rather than a talent problem.

Week 4: Miami Dolphins
Total qualifying plays: 26
Failed coverages: 8
Shutdowns: 9
In Position: 9

More than any other, this game showed off Peterson’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a juxtaposition. Brian Hartline got very little from him. Hartline came free on two underneath routes, a comeback route and once when Peterson lost concentration thinking the play was over, but couldn’t make any real impact down the field. All of his success came against other defensive backs or on blown coverages from different defenders.

Hartline

When Tannehill did force the ball Hartline’s way, Peterson looked just as likely to make an interception as his receiver did a reception. Hartline couldn’t compete with the size and speed of Peterson, on the above jump ball, Peterson was in such good coverage that Hartline was forced to play defensive back and just managed to tip the ball away.

On the other hand, Peterson couldn’t stick with the agile Davone Bess. Bess isn’t that explosive going down the field, but he is very quick and runs crisp routes.

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Peterson’s flexibility and quickness in these scenarios is something that is lacking. It is what separates an Antonio Cromartie from a Darrelle Revis. It’s not something that overly exposes you in space, especially if you have the speed that Peterson does to recover, but it can make you susceptible in situational football against better route runners.

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Unlike Sidney Rice earlier in the season, Bess has the quickness and crisp routes to create separation from Peterson and put him on his heels consistently.

Week 5: St. Louis Rams
Total qualifying plays: 16
Failed coverages: 6
Shutdowns: 4
In Position: 6

Peterson really struggled in this game. He gave up a 44 yard reception to Danny Amendola on his first snap in man coverage. Amendola caught the ball as Peterson never turned his head to the football in aggressive coverage. He was also punished with a pass interference penalty. Amendola beat him on an out route, before creating space over the middle with an excellent arcing route from the slot.

He didn’t follow Amendola around the field, instead taking whoever came his way for much of the game. He contained Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Brandon Gibson, before making an incredibly athletic interception in the endzone against Brian Quick.

Week 6: Buffalo Bills
Total qualifying plays: 14
Failed coverages: 9
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 5

If Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis failed the Stevie Johnson test, Patrick Peterson forgot to show up for it. Johnson beat him with in routes, out routes, comebacks and slants. At one point, Johnson turned Peterson the wrong way and Peterson reacted by tackling him when the ball was heading to the other side of the field. Pass interference wasn’t called, but it was definitely committed.

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Johnson consistently beat Peterson with his agility and short-area quickness. Coming in and out of breaks Peterson was always one step behind the very talented route runner.

Peterson’s interception came as a result of a terrible throw downfield from Brad Smith. Smith’s pass floated over the middle of the field which gave Johnson no chance and allowed Peterson to make an easy interception.

Week 7: Minnesota Vikings
Total qualifying plays: 11
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 0
In Position: 6

Michael Jenkins and Percy Harvin combined to cause Peterson some problems against the Vikings. Obviously the Vikings ran the ball a lot more than they passed, which means it was a very small sample size, but both receivers had different levels of success against him. Jenkins caught two underneath passes on five snaps, while Harvin was able to come free on two deep outs and force a pass interference penalty.

Peterson allowed Harvin into the endzone when he missed a tackle at the goalline, but he started out behind the line of scrimmage and ran behind the line of scrimmage so this wasn’t considered a failed coverage. There was no possible way he could have prevented him from getting the ball in his hands.

Week 8: San Francisco 49ers
Total qualifying plays: 15
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 10

Peterson’s coverage ratio in this game wasn’t bad, but the plays that he did give up were big. He shut down every receiver outside of Michael Crabtree, but Crabtree was too physical for him at the goalline for his first touchdown and spun away from him 10 yards out for his second touchdown. Add in two other big plays from the receiver and it was a day to forget for Peterson.

Peterson’s lack of physicality against Crabtree at the goalline is a major problem to prevent him from being a shutdown cornerback. Peterson doesn’t cover receivers the same way that Richard Sherman or Darrelle Revis do. He allows them more space as he looks to mirror them and close on the ball. This allows receivers to get on top of him in tighter areas because his frame lacks the bulk of Sherman and he doesn’t have the physical presence of Revis. It is something that crops up against bigger receivers and allows receivers to complete passes to receivers even when Peterson is in a good position to disrupt the play.

Week 9: Green Bay Packers
Total qualifying plays: 20
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 7
In Position: 8

Peterson had an effective game for the most part, holding Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin to very few positive plays.

Week 11: Atlanta Falcons
Total qualifying plays: 22
Failed coverages: 7
Shutdowns: 1
In Position: 14

Although Roddy White and Julio Jones are considered elite receivers by many, they are actually better matchups for Peterson than many of the receivers who he had faced prior to this point during the year. White and Jones look to overwhelm their opposition with their physical gifts. Peterson is one of the most physically gifted players in the league, so he is able to prevent them from making big plays down the field.

He gave up seven of 22 coverages, but those plays consisted of two underneath routes, four comeback routes, a slant and a post from Harry Douglas. Against the Falcons’ big-play offense, that is a very impressive feat.

Week 12: St. Louis Rams
Total qualifying plays: 15
Failed coverages: 8
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 5

Peterson gave up a handful of deep opportunities to Chris Givens and Brandon Gibson, but he also shut down Austin Pettis to come up with a very impressive interception.

Week 13: New York Jets
Total qualifying plays: 15
Failed coverages: 5
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 7

Jeremy Kerley gave Peterson some problems and Stephen Hill caught a deep comeback, but the sample size on the whole was quite small against each receiver. Peterson did have an interception that showed off his potential as an athlete.

Screen Shot 2013-05-19 at 00.25.57

This play isn’t considered in the above numbers because the Cardinals were playing a cover-three zone. Peterson is responsible for the bottom third of the field and he has tracked Chaz Schilens down the right sideline. At the point in the above image, Peterson has passed him on to Kerry Rhodes who is playing the middle third of the field. From this image, Schilens has a step on Peterson and Rhodes because he is level and already in full stride heading down the field.

Peterson is watching Sanchez, so he knows that the ball is going in Schilens’ direction. This allows him to forget about his zone responsibilities and look to make a play on the ball.

Most cornerbacks are out of this play at this stage, but a combination of a poor throw from Sanchez and Peterson’s athleticism allows him to still be in the play.

Screen Shot 2013-05-19 at 00.26.40

Sanchez’s pass floats slightly and is behind Schilens. By the time the ball arrives, Peterson has caught up to the receiver and has already leaped over him to high-point the ball and make the interception. His ability to track the ball through the air, use his speed to recover and spring into the air to make the interception is a very valuable combination of talents for a player in his position.

Week 14: Seattle Seahawks
Total qualifying plays: 17
Failed coverages: 3
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 12

After trailing Sidney Rice during their first matchup, Peterson tracked Golden Tate this time around. Tate is a smaller receiver who has the agility to separate from Peterson, but he is not the Wes Welker or Danny Amendola type. Tate attacked the deeper areas of the field against Peterson and the young cornerback limited him to only a handful of opportunities.

Week 15: Detroit Lions
Total qualifying plays: 34
Failed coverages: 15
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 17

It’s no real surprise that Peterson’s toughest day of the 2012 season came against Calvin Johnson. Nobody can really shut down Johnson, but Sherman did prove that he could contain him last year. Peterson followed Johnson all over the field and faced him 25 times in total. Johnson beat him in a variety of ways and Peterson was outclassed.

The numbers aren’t dramatically bad, 14 failed coverages of 25 attempts, but because of Peterson’s style of coverage they also aren’t completely trustworthy. There were a number of occasions when Peterson was in position to make a play, but Johnson still made an easy reception because Peterson’s coverage isn’t aggressive enough. This also means that many of the plays when Peterson is marked down as ‘In Position’, Johnson could still have made an easy reception.

Not many receivers can stop Johnson in those situations, but better than average cornerbacks will typically make things tougher on him.

Week 16: Chicago Bears
Total qualifying plays: 16
Failed coverages: 9
Shutdowns: 3
In Position: 4

After struggling so much with Johnson the week before, Peterson rebounded to follow Brandon Marshall in Week 16. Peterson tried to be more physical with Marshall than he had been against Johnson, but Marshall was rarely bothered by his attempts. Marshall didn’t have it as easy as Johnson did, but he did account for all nine failed coverages and caught a touchdown against Peterson.

Screen Shot 2013-05-19 at 01.42.20

The lasting image from this game doesn’t flatter Peterson. Peterson tried to play Marshall physically from the start of his break before looking to establish position to prevent him from going deeper down the field. Marshall ran right over him before coming free on a deep out route.

Week 17: San Francisco 49ers
Total qualifying plays: 13
Failed coverages: 4
Shutdowns: 2
In Position: 7

Again, Crabtree gave Peterson all of his problems from this game. Peterson faced Randy Moss and Ted Ginn twice combined and neither player got anything from him. Crabtree beat him on a slant, post, crossing route and for a touchdown on just 11 snaps however.

2012 NFL Season Total:
Total qualifying plays: 313
Failed coverages: 116
Shutdowns: 48
In Position: 149
Peterson’s success rate for the season: 62.9%

In Comparison to Richard Sherman:
Total qualifying plays: 380
Failed coverages: 70
Shutdowns: 86
In Position: 224
Sherman’s success rate for the season: 81%

Peterson is some distance behind Sherman and there is no point in comparing him to Darrell Revis. Peterson had a better success rate against receivers than Revis did, but only by two percent and the responsibilities of each player aren’t comparable. Peterson tracked receivers around the field, but he wasn’t put on islands against them by the scheme and didn’t show off obvious weaknesses that teams could target they way Peterson did.

Other Aspects of his Play

When analyzing Patrick Peterson, the question is about whether he is an elite cornerback or not. Right now, he is not. He is a very good cornerback who quarterbacks wouldn’t look to pick on because he can turn any potential touchdown into an interception with his athleticism and ball-skills, but he has a number of flaws that must be corrected. For Cardinals fans, the overwhelming positive is that most of these flaws can be corrected through repetition or coaching, and Peterson hasn’t even turned 23 yet. In comparison, Richard Sherman is 25 already and Revis is much older.

Result of less aggressive coverage.

The most important aspect of his play that must change if he is to reach the level of Sherman and Revis in man coverage is his aggressive. Peterson sticks to receivers and is in position on a regular basis, but he didn’t shut down receivers on the same rate as Sherman because he doesn’t get in tight to receivers’ bodies and he doesn’t close on the ball quick enough to get away with that style of coverage.

For that reason, more accurate quarterbacks are able to fit the ball into their receivers more often than they could against Sherman.

It may seem unfair to keep comparing him to Sherman, but that is the standard and not all of those comparisons are negative for the Cardinals’ player. Peterson has more natural athleticism and he uses that athleticism in a variety of ways. While Sherman spent most of his time at the cornerback position just covering receivers, Peterson makes a greater impact lining up in different areas.

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Blitzing off the edge is a prerequisite ability for any cornerback playing in Ray Horton’s scheme. Peterson did very little pass-rushing last year, but not because of his ability. His incredible speed as a special teams player translates to this aspect of defense and he could easily rack up multiple sack seasons on a consistent basis if given the opportunities.

However, because Peterson was clearly their best cover defender last year and William Gay is a noted blitzer from the nickel cornerback spot, he rarely got the opportunities last year.

Screen Shot 2013-05-18 at 22.17.38

This aggression and speed comes into play against quick passes and in the running game also. In the above image, Peterson reads the quick screen to Mario Manningham before using his speed and that anticipation to breeze past Michael Crabtree who is responsible for blocking him. The third section from the left shows it best as Peterson is so far ahead of his fellow defenders and already behind every blocker for Manningham.

Screen Shot 2013-05-17 at 20.32.30

On this play, Peterson’s speed and aggression allows him to blow past Rob Gronkowski before he has even got out of his stance. In the second and third sections of the image, Gronkowski’s outside foot is circled. Because of Peterson’s speed, Gronkowski is never able to properly plant that foot outside for him to get to the edge. The result sees Peterson shutting down Stevan Ridley in the backfield.

Athleticism

There were a number of plays throughout the season that showed off Peterson’s athleticism at it’s very best. His athleticism masks any mistakes he makes at the beginning of plays. In the above image, Peterson has rushed down the field after play-action and Anthony Fasano is coming into the space that he has departed. Peterson is at the point where he has stopped his forward momentum here, but he is yet to turn around to start recovering.

Peterson and Fasano are almost level, with Fasano already in stride heading downfield…

Athleticism 2

In spite of that, Peterson is able to instantly turn and recover into position without affording Fasano an opportunity to make a reception.

Whether you want to label it as awareness, instincts or intelligence, Peterson also doesn’t have abilities of an elite zone cornerback. His lack of agility hurts him in tight spaces, while his feel for his surroundings isn’t where the Cardinals would like it to be. He is still at the development stages in regards to this aspect of the game, but he already makes up for it with his flexibility in how Ray Horton lined him up on the field.

Screen Shot 2013-05-18 at 17.30.20

Here Peterson is lined up in the middle of the field over the right guard. At the snap, he drops into man coverage on a receiver crossing underneath.

Screen Shot 2013-05-19 at 00.03.03

Conversely, here Peterson lines up as a free safety before dropping down into the box after the snap in man coverage.

It’s always very tempting to project a crown a player today for what we expect him to do later on. Someone like Patrick Peterson is always going to be popular because he is a playmaker with seemingly limitless potential. Today he is a very, very good football player and an elite talent on special teams. However, he is not yet amongst the league’s best cornerbacks. He is on a lower tier compared to Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis.

Patience is never a popular thing to preach about to anyone, but being patient with Peterson should allow him to develop into a real superstar at this level, but right now he is still in the process of that development. He has already surpassed expectations for a player of his relative age and experience. Even the most talented of players are still developing when they are drafted.

There is no shame in spending time as a prince learning the role of the king before you take his seat. For most it is a necessary step. Peterson is an exceptional talent and athlete, but he is no exception when it comes to developing as a pro. He must refine his talent, but once he does he may have no equal.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf