The Arizona Cardinals Patrick Peterson is a 23-year-old cornerback who will be entering his fourth NFL season in 2014. Peterson has earned a reputation as an intimidating player who plays one of the toughest roles of any cornerback in the league. That reputation was built on his big plays with the ball in his hands and his willingness to follow receivers around the field.
What makes following receivers around the field so valuable, and so difficult, is that it means the defensive back is facing off against the opposition’s best receiver on every single snap. Furthermore, if that receiver moves around his own offense throughout the game, then the defensive back is being dragged into different situations from snap-to-snap.
Peterson’s claim to being a shutdown cornerback primarily relies on his willingness to follow receivers around the field at a time when few others are. Richard Sherman, who is widely celebrated as the best cornerback in the NFL, stays on the left side of the field for the most part. Darrelle Revis, who used to follow receivers around the field in New York, didn’t always follow receivers around the field in Tampa Bay and he played too much zone with the Buccaneers.
There’s nothing wrong with playing zone, but it’s not as valuable as playing man coverage when it comes to facing elite receivers.
Although there are many young, emerging stars at the receiver position, there is still no receiver who is as good as Calvin Johnson. In 2013, Peterson was one of the few players to follow Johnson around the field when they faced off. The statistics suggest that Johnson destroyed Peterson, but that’s not necessarily the case.
Johnson finished the game with six receptions for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Peterson was covering Johnson for those two touchdowns and he can’t shift accountability on to anyone else. However, for the game as a whole, Peterson was only beaten by Johnson on six of 17 snaps in man coverage. Two of those plays went for touchdowns, but two were also short slant routes.
Both of those plays went for first downs, but against Calvin Johnson the standards are a little different. Peterson had prevented Johnson from getting open on three routes before the second slant. Each of those routes had gone deep down the field, two down the seam and one down the sideline.
In fact, Peterson covered nine deep routes that Johnson ran. Five of the six routes Peterson gave up were shorter routes like the ones shown above.
If Peterson hadn’t suffered one momentary lack of focus at the worst possible time, he could have held Johnson to a very meagre level of production. Johnson’s statistics were bloated by a 72 yard touchdown catch. Typically he catches such passes by beating defensive backs deep down the field. Instead, this time he caught a pass underneath against Peterson before running most of the way.
Peterson swapped between off coverage and press coverage throughout the game. When Johnson was in the slot, he often played off coverage because of the threat of the pick play and because it’s easier to stop Johnson when you don’t have to deal with his physicality.
It’s 2nd-and-14 on this play. With that in mind, Peterson sets up in his stance slightly outside of Johnson’s outside shoulder. Meanwhile, Peterson understands that he has linebacker help coming across underneath, so he is less inclined to be overly aggressive against any slant route.
Johnson does run that slant route and Matthew Stafford was watching him as soon as he got the ball.
Even though the Cardinals play the slant perfectly, Stafford’s arm strength and ball placement allows him to fit the ball into Johnson, past the linebacker. Johnson catches the ball on his backshoulder, so Peterson is unable to see it when it arrives. He was already out of position to make a play on the ball, presumably because he expected the linebacker to get to it.
Instead of aggressively moving towards the football, like you would expect your defensive back to do against a slant, Peterson is already drifting away from the play. He has already given up the catch, but he compounds his poor play by not making the tackle either.
Peterson appears to think that the linebacker got to the ball. He isn’t even looking at Johnson here as he runs down the field. This allows Johnson to run more than 60 yards to the end zone without having to break a tackle. If Peterson had stayed true to his assignment, he would have likely been able to tackle Johnson and prevent him even reaching the first down marker.
This was a bad mistake from Peterson. It was a mental error. A lapse in concentration that can’t be accepted. It doesn’t reflect his physical ability to cover Johnson.
Johnson was able to beat him for a second touchdown. A touchdown that was more damning than the first. This play initially appears to be just a pick play at the goal line, but it should be noted that Peterson was in off coverage after being penalised for holding when Johnson ran a double move against him in press coverage just a few plays before.
The throw is perfectly timed and perfectly placed. Even if Peterson had been more aggressive to get outside of the pick play, he would have to have made a perfect play on the ball to prevent the touchdown.
If there is one area where Johnson has a notable advantage over Peterson physically, it is his strength. Johnson is a physical freak who typically can beat a defensive back in a variety of ways. In 2012, Peterson played him almost perfectly, but Johnson continually beat him to the ball because of his strength. This was still an issue in 2013, but less so.
Because Peterson is still so young, the context of how he was beaten is very important. Peterson can get stronger, but other defensive backs can’t get stronger, quicker, taller AND faster. Peterson is only really missing one trait to give Johnson a legitimate competition on the field.
In this game, Peterson covered Johnson on all but one snap in man coverage. On that snap he faced Reggie Bush from the slot. Bush beat him with a quick in route. Against Johnson, Peterson played in the slot seven times, at right cornerback six times and left cornerback four times. Three times he was beaten from the slot, twice on slant routes and once on a sideline route. Twice he was beaten at left cornerback, once on a double move when Johnson was too strong coming out of his break and once on an out route. He was beaten just once at right cornerback, on another slant route.
Peterson is still an emerging player who gives Calvin Johnson more problems than most cornerbacks do. That is quite a feat.