Intimidating Defensive Backs and the Emerging Marcus Peters

Davante Adams raised his hand above his head as he ran clear down the right sideline. Adams was in position to score a touchdown. He hadn’t initially been open, but working through his route allowed him to uncover after Aaron Rodgers had extended the play outside of the pocket. Rodgers never looked at Adams. It wasn’t a case of him missing an open receiver, Rodgers had decided long before that play that Adams wouldn’t be thrown to on that play.

It was Week 1 of the 2014 season. Adams had got in behind Richard Sherman on that play, down the left sideline. The Packers coaching staff and Rodgers had decided that they would purposely ignore that side of the field throughout that game. They feared what Richard Sherman could do.

Sherman, like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu before him, is an intimidator. He is part of a club with few members. A club of defensive backs whose presences alone impact the thinking of their opponents. It doesn’t matter that Reed lay deep, Polamalu threatened the line of scrimmage and Sherman patrolled the sideline, each defensive back had/has the same impact on the quarterback they face.

They create fear.

The Packers lost that game so Rodgers’ dismissal of Sherman’s side of the field became a huge story. In truth it was a smart gameplan from the Packers because Sherman’s assignments only escaped him twice on 21 qualifying snaps that day. When the Packers met the Seahawks again in the playoffs, Rodgers didn’t ignore Sherman. Instead he went after him on the very first drive. Adams appeared to be in behind the cornerback again, but Rodgers was throwing the ball from the opposite side of the field after escaping the pocket.

Unsurprisingly, Sherman undercut the pass ahead of Adams to turn a Packers touchdown into a Seahawks touchback.

Teams don’t completely avoid Sherman but they do tend to be more cautious in throwing to his side of the field. He has 79 pass deflections and 26 interceptions (not including playoff games) in his five-year career. He is the most intimidating cornerback in the league not because he doesn’t give up receptions, but because he doesn’t give up receptions and he will punish your mistakes in the most crippling way possible.

Being an intimidator is the pinnacle of defensive back play. It’s the only way you can be proactive at a position that is inherently reactive. Because of the evolution of the league over recent years, it’s become tougher and tougher to be an elite defensive back. It takes a truly special talent to impact the game now the way you could 10 or 15 years ago. A player such as Polamalu would have a much tougher time to be now what he was back then. Teams would spread the field and force Polamalu to drop back away from the line of scrimmage. It’s what happened to him later in his career.

You need to be an Earl Thomas or Sherman type to be truly intimidating these days. Thomas and Sherman are still in their primes so don’t expect anyone to eclipse them anytime soon.

Coincidentally, during the first week of the preseason, Sherman shared the field with a defensive back who could one day replicate what he has done. Marcus Peters has made a phenomenal start to his career. He was beaten regularly as a rookie, but he offset the plays he gave up with the plays that he made. Peters had an incredible 26 pass deflections and eight interceptions in 16 games.

Extrapolated out over five seasons, Peters would eclipse Sherman’s 79 pass deflections and 26 interceptions by 51 and 14 respectively. Of course part of the reason for that discrepancy is how teams have avoided Sherman while Peters was repeatedly targeted last year.

At this point of his career, Peters is closer to an Asante Samuel rather than a Sherman, but he still has plenty of time to develop into a shutdown defender.

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Peters ended the Seahawks first drive last week. Russell Wilson gave him the opportunity with his hesitation that has shown up too often throughout his career. Peters was wide in how he reacted to Jermaine Kearse’s break. That allowed Kearse to cut sharply to the pylon while the cornerback tried to recover. Kearse was open. Peters was beaten. Wilson’s throw was just too late.

Even though Peters was beaten, his athletic ability to recover and his ball skills to locate and attack the ball were extremely impressive. It’s the kind of play that the Seahawks have seen Sherman make throughout his career.

Peters’ ball skills stand out if you go back through his interceptions from last season.

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When Peters is beaten in coverage it’s typically because he loses in the route. His ability to locate the ball at the catch point is exceptional. His ball skills and awareness allow him to attack the ball while his closing speed helps him bait quarterbacks into throwing in his direction. In the above gif, Barnidge has a step on Peters but the quarterback still has to make a precision throw that leads Barnidge away from him because of Peters’ length and athleticism.

Quarterbacks aren’t going to throw with precision on every snap. Whether they miss high, low or wide, Peters has the ability to adjust and react ahead of the receivers he is covering.

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Peters has all the physical tools and natural coverage ability to be a great cornerback. His main issue to address is his mentality. That mentality leads to a lot of interceptions but it’s a mentality that doesn’t need to be on show in every situation. Understanding how and when to be more passive against underneath breaks in routes will help him stop giving up as many big plays as he did during his rookie season.

Against the Seahawks in Week 1 of the preseason, Peters was beaten down the sideline by Paul Richardson for a potential touchdown. Trevone Boykin missed the throw but it was an example of Peters showing off poor coverage technique to negate his own athleticism.

It should be noted that Richardson is a difficult assignment because of his speed.

Peters has plenty of work to do. He’s not as far along as Sherman was at this point of his career, but that doesn’t mean he can’t get to that level. Players develop at different rates and in different ways. Peters is the Chiefs number one cornerback and he will be for at least the length of his rookie deal unless something unforeseen strikes.

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