Vikings

How To Scheme Around Patrick Peterson's Age

Photo Credit: Paul Rutherford (USA TODAY Sports)

Patrick Peterson signed with the Minnesota Vikings because of Mike Zimmer. Both Ian Rapaport and Peterson himself specified that the reason he wanted to come to the Twin Cities was Zimmer’s ability to get the most out of aging cornerbacks.

Peterson is in pretty dire need of such rejuvenation. Since his PED suspension in 2019, he has given up a passer rating of over 100, eight touchdowns, and over 1,000 yards. He also crossed his ill-omened 30th birthday. Whether you think his athleticism has declined due to age or lack of banned stimulants, it’s worth looking into what Peterson has lost. We can also put ourselves in Zimmer’s shoes and discuss how to cover up those deficiencies.

For this, we’ll have to hone in on Peterson’s worst moments. That won’t make for the best overall evaluation, but that’s not our goal right now. Our goal is to find actionable solutions, and for that, we have to isolate the problems. So we’re going to cherry-pick some of Peterson’s worst plays and analyze what went wrong.

Week 2: The McLaurin Experience

Peterson isn’t the first veteran corner to be posterized by the youthful Terry McLaurin. Xavier Rhodes in 2019 had some bad tendencies exposed by McLaurin that derailed his entire season. In Week 2 last year, McLaurin handed Peterson one of the worst games of his career.

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In the first two clips, Peterson plays press-bail and commits to outside leverage. That leaves him dead to a slant in the first clip, but he keeps up well in the second. Press-bail is a helpful tool for struggling corners. With some help inside from a nickel corner or linebacker, that can work out.

In the third clip, Peterson is playing in a press alignment and plays way too passively, allowing another slant. Inside help could aid him again here if you don’t want to ask him to commit further to the jam. The fourth clip is the most concerning. Peterson was shadowing McLaurin in this game, and Scott Turner put that matchup in the slot. Peterson played with really committed outside leverage and got spanked. He probably doesn’t have the agility anymore to cover two-way releases, so he shouldn’t shadow.

The Vikings won’t need Peterson in the slot, since both Jeff Gladney and possibly Mike Hughes will take the snaps there. They’re very familiar with asking corners to funnel routes inside. They probably can’t leave Peterson on the island they used to let Xavier Rhodes occupy. However, at the price of $8 million with incentives, they haven’t signaled an intention to do so.

Long Balls

The worst thing that can happen to a cornerback is a long, explosive touchdown in his coverage. Corners will willfully give up 15-yard plays to avoid this more painful outcome. Here are a few of those big gains.

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This kicked off the Week 7 Sunday Night Football game. The technique here has more good than bad. Peterson’s jam takes Lockett entirely off-balance and Lockett makes almost no separation. Wilson just throws the perfect moonball. Sometimes, even in good coverage, all a receiver requires is the perfect pass. This doesn’t demonstrate any problems we can turn into actionable solutions, unfortunately.

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However, this play gives us a sense of what it’s like to leave Peterson on an island. He plays press-bail against D.K. Metcalf, who runs a very savvy go route. That little stutter about seven yards in forces Peterson to hesitate, and then slam the gas to catch up. He does catch up, but it’s that much harder for him to hit the brakes when it turns out to be a comeback. Metcalf is leveraging not necessarily a loss in speed, but a loss in acceleration and deceleration.

Next up, our old pal Stefon Diggs and the Buffalo Bills. The Bills got Peterson twice in the slot, both aligning him in the No. 3 position in a 3×1 formation.

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His outside vs. slot coverage split keeps coming up, so let’s examine that further:

SLOT COVERAGE

Peterson wasn’t asked to go to the slot a lot, but it had a disproportionate effect on his coverage stats. It’s no coincidence that his worst games also happened to be the ones where Vance Joseph had him shadow the opposing superstar. Teams took advantage of that and dragged him into the slot where he plays his worst football. That’s not an unfamiliar tactic. Adam Thielen rode that strategy to the Pro Bowl and a record-breaking streak of 100-yard games in 2018.

The Cardinals asked Peterson to shadow superstar receivers well into 2020. It seems like Peterson has lost too much juice to reward that anymore. The Vikings decide game by game if they have a cornerback shadow, but Zimmer hasn’t been too keen on shadowing lately. In 2020, they only had two cornerbacks shadow an opposing receiver. PFF counts “shadowing” as a player who lines up against an opposing receiver on over 75% of snaps.

The answer

All this isn’t to say that Peterson needs to be relegated to the same Cover 2 basement that the Vikings chained Chris Jones and Cordrea Tankersley in. There is a lot of space between complete isolation and covering simple shallow zones. The Vikings could probably give him inside help in quarters or keep him on the strong side of plays to ensure more inside help. That’s somewhat costly, schematically speaking, but it still places an entire sideline on his shoulders. For $8 million and incentives, that’s a fair expectation.

This could be closer to the role the Vikings gave to Trae Waynes during his time in Minnesota. Waynes never moved to the slot, and he played with mostly outside leverage. While an elite corner like Rhodes circa 2017 could enable more defensive creativity, most coverage shells had a use for that assignment. So for Peterson, we’ll look for a role that enables creative defense but also doesn’t ask too much of him. Match coverage, once again, could be the answer here. Here’s a great breakdown of match coverage.

“I have a man until he does something, then I go take another man.”

In this example, Peterson would be the strong side corner (on the left). He’d play off-man coverage against the X receiver with inside leverage, funneling routes toward the boundary to squeeze the throwing window. If the X receiver has a deeper route than the H (i.e. slot) receiver, the safety will give Peterson outside help. So if the route breaks in, Peterson is leveraged that way. If it breaks out, the boundary is there. If it goes deep, the safety helps. That safety help gives him the green light to aggressively jump shallow routes. There are very few outcomes that ask Peterson to win on his own with no schematic advantage.

Everyone’s coverage rules are different, which is the magic of man-match coverage. You can design your coverage rules around the skill sets of your players. If you don’t want Peterson covering in-breaking routes, you can tell him to cover someone until they break inside. The Vikings already do this a lot with Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and their bevy of recent slot corners. By the way, the Vikings hired a Nick Saban man-match disciple as their DB coach, and Dalvin Tomlinson‘s signing should free up Harrison Smith. With these things in mind, they could combine to be more than the sum of their parts.

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