How Mike Zimmer Can Revive Patrick Peterson's Career

Photo Credit: Michael Chow (USA TODAY NETWORK)

In 2012, Terence Newman was cut by the Dallas Cowboys. By all accounts, it looked like the end of the road for the former Pro Bowl cornerback, who was turning 34 and seemed to have lost much of the freak athleticism that once led him to be the 5th overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft. Newman was coming off a year in which he posted the ninth-worst PFF grade among starting cornerbacks and fifth-worst in yards allowed per coverage snap. But rather than retire, Newman signed a one-year contract for close to veteran minimum to rejoin Mike Zimmer on the Cincinnati Bengals, saying he had “the utmost confidence in Zim that he can get me back to playing where I was.”

That confidence paid off. The next year under Zimmer, Newman went from posting one of the worst PFF grades in 2011 to one of the better grades in 2012. Newman went on to play six more years in the NFL, almost all of them with Zimmer, consistently grading out as one of the NFL’s better cornerbacks.

So with the Vikings signing Patrick Peterson last week to a 1-year, $8 million contract (with an additional $2 million in incentives), it’s déjà vu all over again: Again Zimmer is bringing in an older free-agent cornerback, again it’s a former 5th overall pick who seems to have lost a step, and again Zimmer is confident he can get the cornerback to bounce back after a down year.

But why is Zimmer confident he can turn things around for Peterson? Because he knows that the Cardinals were asking too much of him, having Peterson shadow opposing WR1s in and out of the slot without safety help as though he’s Darrelle Revis in his prime. At 30 years old, Peterson is no Revis. But with a few tweaks outlined below, he could easily be an even better version of Newman.

How the Cardinals (Mis) Used Peterson Last Year

Throughout his career, Patrick Peterson has been the prototype for a shutdown press-man corner. Peterson came into the league as one of the biggest cornerbacks in the NFL, weighing 219 pounds (99th percentile among CBs) with 32″ arms and running a 4.31 40-yard dash (97th percentile, and practically unheard of at that size). With his size and length, he has always been able to bully and snuff routes out with physicality, while also being able to out-athlete the wide receivers across from him. Throw in quick feet, fluid hips, and great awareness, and you’ll understand why the Cardinals asked Peterson to shadow opposing teams’ best receivers in press man coverage with little safety help for nearly a decade. It might be the hardest job in all of football, but for years Peterson has been more than up to the task.

This past year, the Cardinals continued to ask the world of Peterson, having him shadow opposing WR1’s in press-man coverage, often without safety help. Vance Joseph had one of the most ambitious defenses in football, running Cover 1 (one centerfield safety and man coverage across the board) on nearly half of snaps (among the most in the NFL) while also being one of the most blitz-heavy defenses in football. Peterson was tasked with shadowing Stefon Diggs, Terry McLaurin, and D.K. Metcalf (twice) across the field, generally all on his own.

In prior years, Peterson was more than up for the task, but over the last couple years his athleticism has started to decline. Peterson is no longer the best athlete on the field and cannot simply rely on a 4.31 40-yard-dash speed to outrun All-Pro receivers across the field:

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Despite the limited speed, the Cardinals still asked Peterson to shadow the fastest receivers in football without help over the top. Peterson shadowed D.K. Metcalf, the 229-pound receiver who ran a 4.33 40, for over 80% of his routes over two separate games. In the first matchup, Peterson was up to the task, holding Metcalf to just six yards on three targets and racking up an interception and a second pass breakup. But in the second matchup, Peterson just couldn’t keep up with Metcalf, giving up the 41-yard fade route above (called back on offensive holding) along with another 45-yard pass interference penalty. Peterson was also tasked with shadowing first-team All-Pro Stefon Diggs, who on several occasions was able to beat Peterson simply by running past him, including on the touchdown clipped above.

But as much as Peterson’s straight-line speed has declined, his stop-start quickness is even worse. Peterson’s worst lowlights last year came while trying to defend smaller, quicker receivers on sharp breaking routes like blaze outs or whip routes, often resulting in penalties to avoid giving up touchdowns and explosive plays:

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The Cardinals exacerbated that weakness by forcing Peterson to shadow elite receivers even into the slot, where Peterson could no longer use his physicality and the sideline to his advantage and had to instead defend two-way routes in the open field. The results were disastrous: Four of the five touchdowns Peterson gave up last year came from the slot, and Peterson recorded the third-worst passer rating allowed from the slot among cornerbacks with at least 50 slot coverage snaps.

And even when the Cardinals had Peterson play to the boundary, by forcing Peterson to play so much man coverage with only one deep safety, Peterson was left on an island without the athletic tools to keep up when he made any slight error. Partially as a result, Peterson ended the season as the most-penalized defender in the NFL:

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At one point the Philadelphia Eagles even made it a strategy of throwing the ball deep versus Peterson, knowing that even if he blanketed the route (as he often did), they still had a good chance of walking away with a penalty. And they were right — Peterson was penalized three times in that game. Peterson’s physical style of coverage, combined with being asked to carry star athletes across the field come hell or high water, led to seven pass interference penalties and four defensive holding penalties just last year.

The last way the Cardinals set Peterson up to fail is that even when the team played zone coverage, there was a distinct lack of communication and coordination throughout the defense. So when Peterson allowed an inside release hoping the slot cornerback or linebacker would be there to pick the route up, there was often no one there:

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The Cardinals simply asked too much of Peterson, leading to some ugly results. You can’t necessarily blame Arizona for trying — Peterson has been shutting down some of the best receivers in the game for nearly a decade, and while Peterson’s athleticism seems to have diminished, he can often make up for it with impeccable technique and incredible instincts. Even at his age, up against the best the NFL has to offer, Peterson was the fifth-least-targeted starting cornerback in the NFL, right up there with Tre’Davious White, Jalen Ramsey, and Stephon Gilmore.

The problem was that the Cardinals kept putting Peterson in awkward positions so that when he did make mistakes in coverage and get targeted, they were costly. When forced into the slot, Peterson lacked the quickness to keep up with shiftier receivers, leading to Peterson surrendering four of his five total touchdowns last year. With so much press man coverage up against better athletes, Peterson wound up as the most-penalized defender in the NFL. And with poor defensive cohesion and communication and limited safety help, Peterson couldn’t rely on anyone but himself in coverage.

How Mike Zimmer Helped Revive Terence Newman’s Career

Newman provides an interesting precedent for how Zimmer might try and turn Peterson’s career around. Newman’s final year in Dallas involved a complex defensive scheme from then-Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who loved to blitz and force cornerbacks to play man to man. Despite it being just his first year with the Cowboys, Ryan installed so many concepts and made the scheme so complicated (as he himself admitted) that the Cowboys’ defensive communication and cohesion suffered as a result. That left the 33-year-old cornerback to fend for himself in situations where he wasn’t equipped to win — covering routes one-on-one deep downfield despite having lost a step, pressing physical receivers at the line of scrimmage despite being a slightly undersized corner, passing routes off to fellow defenders who didn’t know they were supposed to be there or going up one-on-one in the low red zone versus Calvin Johnson in his prime:

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As a result, Newman wound up with the fifth-worst yards allowed per coverage snap among all starting cornerbacks, and it looked like his career might be drawing to a close.

But when Newman reunited with Zimmer, the coach gave Newman more help and put him in situations where he could succeed: Cincinnati’s defense communicated well, so Newman could confidently pass off routes to the inside defender. Newman had more safety help and played almost exclusively to the boundary where he could use the sideline to his advantage. Newman was no longer counted on to be the best cornerback on the roster and wasn’t forced to jam receivers who outweighed him by 50 pounds. The differences in results were night and day:

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Newman went from posting the ninth-worst PFF grade among starting cornerbacks in 2011 to posting the 26th-best PFF grade in 2012. He jumped from the fifth-worst yards allowed per coverage snap to 26th-best (out of 77 starting cornerbacks). Matt Miller ranked Newman the 17th-best cornerback in the NFL.

Just as Newman seemed to be in decline after having too much asked of him in Dallas, but turned his career around in a defense that put him in a better position to succeed, so too can Patrick Peterson turn things around with Zimmer in Minnesota in a defense that communicates better, provides more safety help and never forces cornerbacks to bite off more than they can chew.

How Mike Zimmer Can Help Return Patrick Peterson to Form

Patrick Peterson explicitly chose to sign with Minnesota based on Zimmer’s track record with aging cornerbacks, as Peterson said in his introductory presser on Monday:

Coach Zim himself stood out to me. His reputation speaks for itself — the things he’s able to do, not only with the defense but with defensive backs, speaking of Deion Sanders, Leon Hall, Terence Newman, Jonathan Joseph… the list goes on. He’s able to help further those guys’ careers. And if you look at all those guys’ careers, those guys played 13, 14-plus years. So Coach Zim definitely has something he’s given those guys to not only help propel their careers into new heights but also help their …longevity.

So what can Zimmer do to return Patrick Peterson to his former All-Pro form?

Simple: Ask Peterson to do what he’s good at, and don’t make him do things he’s no longer good at.

And Patrick Peterson is still really good at a lot of things. Take his ball skills, for example. At 6’1″, with his long 32″ arms, he is able to get his hands on every pass when he’s in position. And with his quick feet and elite route anticipation, he’s in position on a whole bunch of plays:

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And even though Peterson’s athleticism has declined, he is still able to absolutely blanket every step of the route thanks to his physicality, as I discussed in more detail here. Once he gets his hands on a receiver, he sticks to that player like molasses, because he has the bulk to bully receivers in the stems of their routes, drive them off-course and press them to the boundary. And the beauty of that physical style of play is that while opposing receivers are jostling with Peterson mid-route, they’re always going to be running at the same speed as Peterson:

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That’s how, despite declining straight-line speed, Peterson was able to keep up with some of the fastest receivers in the league last year, including D.K. Metcalf, Jalen Reagor, and Terry McLaurin, each as shown above.

And it’s not just in the stems of routes where Peterson’s physicality shines, it’s from the very start of each release and all through the catch point. While Peterson is still very effective with soft press technique, he can jam the heck out of receivers, stopping even 265-pound tight ends in their tracks at the line of scrimmage:

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As these plays show, that smothering style forces coverage sacks, bad throws and incompletions. So long as Peterson has his hands on the opposing receiver, chances are the quarterback won’t find much of a window to throw into.

But that doesn’t mean Peterson can only excel near the line of scrimmage. While Peterson may have lost some of his speed and quickness, his hips are still on a swivel. He makes both zone turns and speed turns look easy, and his ability to anticipate and mirror opposing receivers’ routes is so good he often almost looks like synchronized carbon copy upfield:

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Particularly impressive in the plays shown above is Peterson’s patience at the line of scrimmage. There is no rush, no panicking. So many cornerbacks (especially young cornerbacks) will take the cheese and open their hips early or the wrong way when pressing near the line of scrimmage, but Peterson is so confident and relaxed, which is a huge reason why he is so hard to beat off the release.

In off coverage, Peterson is comfortable in either a backpedal or shuffle and has the hip flexion and route anticipation to break very early on routes, either upfield or downfield. The one area where he can struggle in off coverage (and the reason I like him better in press coverage) is that, at this stage in his career, his closing burst and speed is limited:

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Peterson partially makes up for that poor burst with very advanced route recognition, but in general he’s at his best from press coverage where he is able to smother the route from the very first step rather than capping routes. From off coverage, Peterson will give up some easy completions underneath; from press coverage, he will largely go untargeted — but when he does get targeted, he can give up dangerous completions downfield.

That is why, at this stage of his career, Peterson could use a bit more safety help. He’s still plenty good enough to leave on an island — just don’t leave him without a lifeboat. With a safety shaded to his side of the field, either from Cover 2 (or Cover 6) or with a single-high safety with the range to help on vertical routes, Peterson can more comfortably risk getting beaten upfield and play the kind of aggressive, physical coverage he can still truly excel at.

More safety help would also enable Peterson to showcase his very good trail technique, where he can mirror routes underneath the defender and take away passing windows (or enable interceptions) a half-step behind the receiver:

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And while Peterson is still at his best in press man coverage, it’s worth mixing in some zone coverage to take advantage of just how smart he is, how quickly downhill he triggers once he reads the play, and how much his film study shows that he knows where the ball is going based just on the route distribution:

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That first play is particularly impressive, as Peterson is actually in man coverage against Stefon Diggs. But Peterson is able to read the Yankee concept unfolding and thus abandons his coverage to undercut the post route behind him for the interception. Allowing Peterson to focus his eyes fully on the quarterback might result in more catches underneath, but it will also allow the former All-Pro to rack up a few more interceptions — not a bad tradeoff in moderation.

So Zimmer can definitely return Patrick Peterson to his former dominant self. He simply needs to ask Peterson to do the things he’s great at and avoid the things he’s bad at.

The Cardinals played Peterson in the slot on 12% of coverage snaps last year to disastrous effect. His lack of quickness was exposed on the inside and he was unable to use his physicality to his advantage. If you simply take away the 74 coverage snaps Peterson played inside last year, Peterson’s coverage numbers skyrocket: three interceptions, only one touchdown allowed all year and a passer rating allowed of just 80.6, which would have ranked 17th-best among all cornerbacks. Peterson can still shadow receivers — he clearly benefits from the film study and man-on-man matchups — but don’t force him into deep water inside. Zimmer should keep Peterson on the outside, where his physicality shines brightest.

But that only solves part of Peterson’s problems last year. To keep Peterson from surrendering deep catches downfield, or to keep him from committing penalties to prevent touchdowns, give him more help. Zimmer won’t need to exclusively play two deep safeties, but don’t play the least Cover 2 in the NFL like the Cardinals did last year. With more safety help over the top, Peterson will be able to confidently press receivers at the line of scrimmage without needing to panic if a receiver starts to beat him downfield occasionally.

Zimmer should also continue to play more zone-matching concepts rather than pure man-to-man coverage, because if Peterson is forced to cover Stefon Diggs or Terry McLaurin on deep crossing patterns across the field again, those are footraces the veteran corner won’t be able to win. Having Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and Jeff Gladney as teammates should enable Peterson to frequently pass off in-breaking routes, which will prevent Peterson’s lack of quickness from getting exposed in the middle of the field. Communication and synergy must continue to be emphasized, the same as they were for Terence Newman and the Bengals in 2012.

All that will allow Peterson to do what he does best and avoid the Cardinals’ pitfalls last year. Peterson can still dominate top receivers as a physically intimidating press corner with elite ball skills and impressive play recognition. He just needs a little more help from the scheme and the players around him to help mask some of his physical limitations.

And not coincidentally, that all meshes with Zimmer’s schematic tendencies and the Vikings’ current roster. Zimmer has based out of two-high safety looks for the past few years now. While I don’t believe he wants to abandon run defense and base out of Cover 2 next year the way he was forced to last year to help out the depleted cornerback corps, there’s good reason to think he will continue to run more split-safety coverage, as we wrote about recently. More split-safety looks would also allow Peterson to press more often, knowing that he has a safety valve upfield should anyone get past him.

And the necessity for defensive cohesion also meshes with Zimmer’s zone matching coverage philosophy that emphasizes active communication and passing off routes while still playing tight to receivers to get the best of both zone coverage and man coverage. It’s the same reason Newman was able to succeed with Zimmer in Cincinnati after struggling his last year in Dallas — a well-coached defense that knows what each player is doing can help prop each defender up.

So How Good Can Patrick Peterson Be Next Year?

Peterson may have declined physically in the 10 years he has been in the league, but he can make up for it with teach-tape technique, suffocating physicality, and veteran savvy. His is not necessarily the position I would have prioritized given the other needs on the roster, nor is his one-year deal necessarily the best use of resources in the long term. But he can still be a good player, maybe even a great player, at one of the most important positions in football.

He is no longer the rare physical specimen that you can leave on an island and set and forget. He’s no prime Darrelle Revis. But with his press technique and intelligence, he can still play like a veteran Richard Sherman. I wouldn’t expect 31-year-old Patrick Peterson to have the same kind of season that 31-year-old Deion Sanders had with Zimmer in 1998. But I think Peterson can still be one of the better cornerbacks in the league for a long time — much like Terence Newman.

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