Patrick Peterson: PSR Cornerback Analysis
Nobody would ever compare Julio Jones’ 2015 season to Randy Moss’ 2007 season. Jones had an incredible season last year, he caught 136 passes for 1,871 yards and eight touchdowns. Moss didn’t have as many receptions or yards, but his 23 touchdowns make his 2007 season a pinpoint in NFL history.
Nobody would compare Carson Palmer’s 2015 season Peyton Manning’s 2013 season or Doug Martin’s 2015 season to Adrian Peterson’s 2012 season.
Each of Jones, Palmer and Martin had great seasons last year. None of them were remotely notable in a historical sense though. We can comfortably say that without detraction because of the statistical representation for each of those season-long performances. We can’t do that with cornerbacks. We simply don’t have statistics that are reliable enough to measure the overall quality of a player’s season. This lack of empirical measurement leads our analysis to narratives.
It’s not a coincidence that the cornerback who is perceived to be the best each year is called a shutdown cornerback. He is compared to the Darrelle Revis and Richard Shermans of the world. Cornerbacks can’t just have great seasons, they can’t fall in line with Jones, Palmer or Martin’s 2015 seasons, they have to be put up there with Moss, Manning and Peterson. We lack nuance because we don’t have the statistical representation to create a totem pole of quality.
The difficulty in measuring the quality of cornerbacks is in the construction of the game. Your quality on offense is primarily determined by what you do with the opportunities you get. You are judged when you touch the ball. Cornerbacks are measured by their ability to stop those plays, cornerbacks need to be reliable on every snap so they are ready whenever the ball could come their way.
From the Pre-Snap Reads Analysis Method, we have a standard for cornerbacks to aspire to if they want to be true Shutdown Cornerbacks.
During Richard Sherman’s 2012 season, he compiled 24 pass deflections, eight interceptions, three forced fumbles and one sack. More importantly, he had a success rate in coverage of 81 percent on 380 qualifying plays.
Darrelle Revis had his best season in 2011 when Rex Ryan used him aggressively against his opponents’ best receivers. The way Ryan used him meant that Revis had an unnaturally low success rate in coverage (60.2 percent), but in a more traditional defensive situation in 2013 he achieved a similarly impressive 81.9 percent success rate for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
One of the main points in any case for Patrick Peterson over the years has been how the Cardinals have used him. The Cardinals move Peterson all over the field, asking him to follow specific receivers on occasion, but they never treated him the way the Jets did Revis. The Cardinals have rarely anchored their coverage off of Peterson, forcing him to play one-on-one, press-man coverage in a vast amount of space against the best receivers in the league.
As such, Peterson’s success rate should still be expected to be closer to 80 percent than 60 percent for him to be considered a good cornerback.
In 2015, Peterson was good, very good really. With Revis and Sherman enduring relatively down years, Peterson was inevitably given the Shutdown Cornerback label and propped up as the best cornerback in the league. It’s unclear if he was significantly better than Revis, Sherman, Chris Harris, Desmond Trufant or Aqib Talib, but we can say for sure that Peterson wasn’t close to a Shutdown Cornerback if we accept Revis and Sherman’s standards for one.
Peterson had a success rate of 72.1 percent on 262 qualifying snaps in 2015. Success rate alone can’t determine the quality of a cornerback, you also need to factor how he was used and who he faced, but while Peterson was moved around more than most his usage and the type of receivers he faced don’t justify that low of a success rate to consider him a dominant player.
|Receiver||Successful Coverages||Failed Coverages||Success Rate|
The above chart tracks Peterson’s success against specific receivers. It only includes players who had at least four qualifying snaps against the cornerback. Peterson feasted on limited receivers. He legitimately shut down the unspectacular athletes who don’t run deceptive or refined routes.
As you read down the chart, you can see how greater route runners and receivers who could run away from him in space were able to have more success.
What stands out most from that chart is not the issues he had with receivers such as Stefon Diggs, Antonio Brown and A.J. Green, it was the unexpected struggles he endured against the straight-line receivers. Peterson is supposed to be one of the best athletes in the NFL, someone who can run with any receiver he faces. Yet, Ted Ginn, Brandin Cooks, Travis Benjamin, Torrey Smith and even Tyler Lockett will feel like they got the better of him.
Against these types of receivers, losing once isn’t the same as losing once to a Wes Welker-type. Losing once to these deep threats often means losing on deep routes for potential big plays.
Peterson is the prototype height-weight-speed corner. He has all the athletic traits that teams look for in an outside cornerback. His recovery speed was repeatedly highlighted throughout the 2015 season when working the sideline, no more so than when receivers attempted to run double moves against him. In the above gifs, Peterson effectively covers two of the fastest straight-line receivers in the league: Torrey Smith and Brandin Cooks.
Both receivers run double moves but in the first play Peterson is playing press coverage and in the second he lines up off the line of scrimmage. We can clearly see him accelerate with both receivers to tighten his coverage despite showing some sloppiness early on in both plays.
One of the main narratives surrounding Peterson’s play during the 2015 season was his weight loss. It was largely talked about in terms of Peterson’s speed but he has never had any issue running with any receiver so it wasn’t really relevant there. Weight loss is more important for your movement tracking receivers through their breaks. Peterson himself highlighted this:
“As a cornerback, you have to be as light as possible on your feet. You have to make sure you have fluent[presumably this should read “fluid”] hips and a great change of direction. When I put that weight on last year, I wasn’t able to do some of the things that I wanted to do in the year prior. So now that I am down to my lowest weight since I’ve been in the NFL, I feel unbelievable.”
There were signs that Peterson had improved. He had plenty of plays where he won on routes that he never would have won on in previous seasons.
Peterson’s weight loss allowed him to be more physical against bigger receivers. In previous years he would bounce off of Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green when trying to play aggressive coverage because he couldn’t shift his weight and move his feet fast enough to reset when they got aggressive against him. Although he wasn’t consistent enough in this type of coverage to be considered alongside Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis, there were numerous examples of how his weight loss helped him.
In the above play, Peterson presses Green aggressively in the slot and doesn’t give him an inch of space as he tries to release into his crossing route. The play ends relatively quickly because of the pass rush, but Peterson has already disrupted the timing of Green’s route and is in position to run with him further across the field.
This was Peterson’s most impressive play of the season last year. He extends his hands to jam Green at the line but quickly drops them so he can maintain his balance instead of forcing an engagement where he would have to lean into the receiver and expose himself. As Green releases infield, Peterson is able to lean on him while maintaining his balance and positioning on his outside shoulder. Peterson mirrors Green’s feet through his break with his own, turning to come back towards the sideline with rather than behind the receiver.
From there he is able to rely on his length and athleticism to accelerate in front of Green and knock the ball away.
Peterson doesn’t have good feet in general. He can’t mirror the movements of the league’s quicker receivers or shift his weight in an instant to comfortably play two-way goes in the slot. He is reliant on his length and straight-line speed to be effective. NFL teams appear to be prioritizing this length and athleticism now, it’s why cornerbacks such as Trae Waynes and Justin Gilbert were first off the board in their drafts. Yet, cornerbacks are most often beaten in the NFL during the breaks of routes.
Being long, strong and fast isn’t all that valuable if you have rigid hips and sloppy/slow feet. Even though Peterson became a little more fluid and a little more precise with his feet after his weight loss for the 2015 season, he was still a sloppy cornerback through breaks.
Antonio Brown is one of the toughest, if not the toughest receiver in the league to track through his routes. He’s not only extremely quick and precise with his feet, he has a low center of gravity and an aggressive upper body to fight you while he goes. This play is a great example of how good a receiver Brown is. He manipulates Peterson from the very beginning and the cornerback is off balance throughout the play. Brown wins the route, he is open over the middle of the field even though the ball is thrown behind him.
What stands out from this play is how Peterson stayed in the vicinity of Brown. In previous years he wouldn’t have had a chance of staying within five yards of the receiver on this play.
There’s a lack of control and balance in most things that Peterson does. He was repeatedly slipping and falling in coverage during the 2015 season. When a cornerback falls down in his route you typically think he was unlucky or wearing the wrong cleats. When he is falling down repeatedly throughout the year he’s either stubborn with his bad equipment choices or the game is moving a bit too fast for him. In Peterson’s case, it appears to be the latter.
These three plays come from a stretch of four qualifying snaps against the Seahawks in Seattle. They are symptomatic of the flaw that prevents Peterson from being a true shutdown cornerback. His rigid movements too often prevent him from tracking receivers through their breaks, he lacks the requisite balance, fluidity and quickness to lock onto his assignments and move with them in a controlled fashion. This leads to overly-aggressive actions that exposes him by setting him up to be manipulated.
What made Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman great wasn’t their respective sizes or ability to sprint in a straight line. Revis and Sherman were both dominant during their peaks because they combined great fluidity in their hips, precise/quick feet and outstanding ball skills. Being long, strong and fast helps, but it can’t be the foundation of your skill set if you want to be a shutdown cornerback.
In reality we should stop comparing cornerbacks to Sherman or Revis. We should stop labelling the best or most productive cornerback from a given season as a shutdown cornerback. We don’t compare every half decent tight end to Rob Gronkowski and we don’t compare every half decent wide receiver to Randy Moss. It’s time to show more nuance at the cornerback position by embracing legitimate analysis instead of talking up every Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson or Josh Norman that attracts our attention.