TEMPE, Ariz. – Patrick Peterson admits that he was pressing last Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. He was out of his comfort zone. The game was moving — get this — too fast!
“I was trying to make too much happen against my hometown team,” said Peterson, who is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “That was huge for me. I just wanted to make a play happen so bad. I had all of my family here. It was a nationally televised game shown back home, so there was a lot on the table.”
Which helps explain why Peterson did something special teams coach Kevin Spencer has never seen him do. The sure-handed, punt-returning nightmare muffed a ball that he quickly fell on top of at the Arizona 25-yard line midway through the second quarter.
“I wasn’t focusing on the fundamentals of catching the ball, securing the ball and things like that. I just wasn’t dialed in,” Peterson said. “It felt like I was rushing. I wasn’t calm.”
Peterson vowed Wednesday that he’d never let that happen again – even if he isn’t getting the opportunities he had last season when he tied an NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns as a rookie. The Cardinals are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. They know what Peterson can bring to the return game.
Just as important, they are getting a good sense of what he can do as a cornerback – and what teams are unwilling to do against him.
In the Cardinals’ signature win of the season, a 20-18 win over New England in Foxborough, Mass., Patriots QB Tom Brady threw only six balls in Peterson’s direction. Two were completed.
So far this year, Pro Football Focus statistics say Peterson has been in coverage for 182 plays. QBs have thrown at him 22 times and have completed nine passes for 104 yards, zero TDs with one interception and two passes broken up. This equates to 0.57 yards per coverage snap (eighth best in the NFL) and a QB rating of 36.9 into his coverage (sixth best in the NFL). That ranking comes despite the fact that Peterson has seen the likes of Seattle’s Sidney Rice, New England’s Brandon Lloyd, Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson and now will likely defend the player with the second-most receptions in the NFL (31), Danny Amendola, when the Cards take on the Rams on Thursday night in St. Louis.
“I’ve said it from probably Week 4 or 5 (of last season) that he has the potential to be the best defensive player in the league,” Cards defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “Not just the best defensive back in the league, but the best defensive player in the league.”
Anybody who’s been around Peterson for any length of time knows he has the drive.
“He’s unique in his athletic abilities, but he’s still extremely competitive and accountable for everything he does,” Cards defensive backs coach Louie Cioffi said. “He works very hard at getting better at his craft. The kid is amazing that way.”
There’s also an aura about Peterson that only emanates from the truly great athletes. It’s a supreme confidence that never strays into arrogance; a calm and time-tested understanding that you are every bit as good as people say you are.
“Patrick Peterson has a swag about himself,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “He should because he’s a hell of a player.”
Peterson struggled in his rookie season at cornerback. He wasn’t allowed to play the physical brand of ball he had grown accustomed to because officials hadn’t grown accustomed to him. Multiple pass interference calls forced him to re-evaluate somewhat, but the biggest obstacle was learning the complexities of Horton’s system, knowing where to look and where to be.
So Cioffi gave him some film to study in the offseason. Some of the players on that film were guys you’d expect, like Jets star cornerback Darrelle Revis. But others were under-the-radar guys like Cincinnati Bengals corner Leon Hall, who Cioffi had worked with as a Bengals assistant.
“I’m a big technique guy,” Cioffi said. “When everything else breaks down, all you have to fall back on is your technique, and Hall is really a master technician. When you play with pretty good technique, usually you’re in position to make plays. And when you have a guy with Patrick’s athletic ability added on, he’s going to make plays nine times out of 10.”
Peterson’s work habits have always helped speed his progress, but there was another factor driving him this year that had nothing to do with his physical tools, his work ethic or the Cardinals coaching staff. When Peterson went the Pro Bowl last season, he spent a lot of time around Packers corner Charles Woodson, Bears corner Charles Tillman and Seattle safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.
He saw the way those elite players carried themselves. He saw the way those elite players approached the game. And he wanted what they had.
“It definitely motivated me to not only get back to the Pro Bowl, but to get back as a cornerback,” Peterson said. “That’s a different level there. Those guys are the best of the best.”
Cornerback might be his only route back to Honolulu, given the dearth of opportunities he’s getting as a punt returner.
“People aren’t going to kick the ball down the middle of the field to him anymore,” Spencer said. “He’s a known quantity. You’d be very foolish to do that.”
But Peterson insists he is ready for that step.
“I’m definitely getting into the groove, knowing how teams want to attack me,” he said. “The game has really slowed down for me this year and in the back half of last year. Knowing where you’re supposed to be really helps make things a lot – a lot — smoother.”
As for the possibility of complacency setting in, Peterson shakes his head vigorously at the thought.
“I don’t see it as a danger. I want to continue to be the best,” he said. “Besides, I won’t ever get complacent because, one, my coach won’t let me and two, the players won’t let me. I’ve got great guys around me pushing me to be the best I can be.”