FLAGSTAFF – Patrick Peterson has always admired Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders.
He chose jersey No. 21 in tribute. He returns punts in the same electric fashion. He flashes a Deion-wide smile, and he even channeled a little Deion as he danced into the end zone on a return against the Rams last season.
But as he struts into his second season with the Cardinals, Peterson is ready to make his own mark in the NFL. He’s ready to move to his own music.
“I’m trying to make up my own dance,” he said. “We’ll see once I touch the end zone if I prevail in it or not. I’m still doing a little tweaking.”
The same can be said of Peterson’s overall game. While he burst onto the NFL stage last season as a punt returner, tying an NFL record with four returns for touchdowns, Peterson’s cornerback play was a work in progress.
“The return (job) is way easier than playing corner. All you’ve got to do is catch the ball and run for your life,” Peterson said. “The cornerback position is a different concept and it’s a different mindset as well.”
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton said it’s the little things Peterson must hone.
“Most of it is hand placement, eyes – what he’s looking at – and most of it for him is really pre-snap,” Horton said “Can you understand what you’re seeing on film? Can you understand what they’re trying to do to you before they snap the ball? He wants to be that guy.”
After some early-season hiccups, Peterson got a lot closer to being that guy. His confidence swelled when cornerbacks coach Louie Cioffi told him he would be defending the opponent’s top receiver in Baltimore. Since then, the progress has been palpable.
As an example, Horton highlighted a change Peterson has made in a simple confrontation he lost with regularity last season.
“He was running a go-route down the field and the receiver was pushing him like they do, which is illegal, but they push him, and usually they create the separation and catch the ball,” Horton said. “This year, when they did it (in camp), he was pushing back into the guy and picked the ball off, so to me, he’s light years ahead because he finally understands the little nuances of the game: ‘They’re going to push right at the point of reception, so I’ve got to be able to push back.'”
Horton believes that with time, Peterson will gain the respect of officials and get away with some of the physical contact that led to six pass interference penalties last season.
Peterson hopes so. He has an unabashed goal. He wants to be the best corner in the game.
“I want to get to the point where teams don’t even want to throw my way,” he said.
If that sounds like too rapid a rate of progression, you don’t know Peterson. He married Antonique Larry in June at the ripe age of 22 because he is certain, “she’s definitely the love of my life, and I’m the love of her life.”
When asked if teams will dare to kick to him, he said: “I have no idea, but a lot of teams have egos they can’t put aside, so if they do give me a shot, I have to just make them pay.”
And when asked if he ever had any doubts he’d succeed in the NFL, he channeled a little Will Smith: “Nah. Psshh. Not at all.”
“He’s probably been the best player on his team since he was born,” Horton quipped. “That’s a big part of it. Successful people, confident people have that. They know: ‘You’re going to win some, but I’m going to win the majority of them.'”
Peterson believes he will win them all. And his head coach isn’t going to dispute that.
“Not really a lot concerns me about Patrick with his athletic ability and the way he works,” Ken Whisenhunt said with a wide smile. “I know he’s expecting to have a big year, and I’m certainly pulling for him.”