How Patrick Peterson is the standard-bearer for shadow corners

The CB has made a career out of shadowing opponents' No. 1 WRs and making the rest of the defense's job that much easier.

| 3 weeks ago
Patrick Peterson

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

How Patrick Peterson is the standard-bearer for shadow corners


Ever since Darrelle Revis’ scheme-changing 2009 season where he tracked opposing No. 1 receivers week in and week out, the name of the game for elite cornerbacks has been shadowing. The thought is, unless you’re going from one side of the field to the other to try and shut down the opposing team’s best receiver, you can’t call yourself an elite corner. This is obviously a load of crap. We’ve seen cornerbacks track top receivers with disastrous results while we’ve also seen how valuable locking down one side of the field and being able to roll coverages away can be.

There is no doubt though that shadowing is the most difficult role a cornerback can play, and currently no cornerback in the league does more of it than the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson.

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Peterson spent 40 percent of his coverage snaps tracking wideouts. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s more a product of the fact that not all teams have a true No. 1 option. Peterson didn’t track anyone in matchups with teams like Seattle or Washington who have no one receiver who stands out above the rest. Below is a sampling of the receivers he did track throughout the 2016 season:

  • Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Brandon Marshall, New York Jets
  • Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
  • Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings
  • Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
  • Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints

That list includes PFF’s two highest-graded receivers from last season (Evans and Jones). This is nothing new for Peterson though, as he’s been doing it almost his entire career. He’s made himself the sacrificial lamb of sorts as his coverage stats may never look amazing on paper, but because of the difficulty of the role he takes on, the Cardinals defense as a whole benefits. Arizona has finished in the top-10 of PFF’s team pass coverage grading five of Peterson’s six years in the league (the lone exception coming after Peterson’s diabetes diagnosis in 2014). Coincidence? I doubt it.

One of the biggest misconceptions about shadowing wide receivers is that they’re playing man coverage every time. They can follow and play any coverage in the book and just because a corner is lined up across from a wideout doesn’t even mean that he’ll necessarily guard him on the play. Either way though, it can still make an impact on the defense.

Peterson’s Week 2 bout with Mike Evans is a great example of this. On Tampa Bay’s very first drive from scrimmage, he starts at left corner across from Evans before following him to the right side and back to the left. The first snap is man coverage. The second snap is cover-3 and because Evans runs a crosser Peterson passes him off. And then the third snap he does this:

This is cover-3, but it’s not your run of the mill spot dropping cover-3. Tony Jefferson is the middle of the field safety on the play, but at you can see, he’s wholly uninterested in actually providing help to Peterson’s side. Jefferson doesn’t come close to even having enough depth to defend a deep post like that and with Peterson’s outside leverage this should spell big trouble for the defense. “Should” is the key word there, though. It’s 100 percent the right receiver for Jameis Winston to target, but his small overthrow turns into a big mistake on the stat sheet. Because Jefferson didn’t have to worry about helping Peterson and could cut the crosser, the Cardinals defense gave Winston no options. This was a common theme in that one as Peterson only allowed 3 catches on 8 targets for 38 yards against Evans all day while Winston threw four picks.

As I mentioned before, tracking a top wide receiver does nothing for a defense if the corner is just going to get torched. With Peterson, this isn’t an issue. He hasn’t allowed more than 73 yards in a game in either of the past two seasons. That includes the battle with Julio Jones, where Peterson yielded only 31 yards on 3 catches (5 targets).

You can count the number of corners in the NFL who could manhandle Jones like that on one hand. For as good as Peterson is playing press-man, his bread-and-butter coverage last season was actually playing off in cover-3. In that scheme he allowed 7 catches on 16 targets all season long for 78 yards. His 4.9 yards per attempt allowed in cover-3 was the second-best figure of any boundary corner in the NFL. It’s comical to think what Peterson’s stats would look like if he didn’t have to face the top wide receivers in the game play in and play out. We got a good taste of that in his matchups with the 49ers and Bills where he tracked Torrey Smith and Marquis Goodwin respectively because of speed concerns. In those three games, he allowed 4 catches on 8 targets for 48 yards. Extrapolated out over a full season that’s 21 receptions for 248 yards. Oh, and that also included the best play of any cornerback last year:

Even with Peterson’s difficult assignments, he still was targeted at the lowest rate of any corner in the NFL and allowed receptions at the third-lowest rate. Peterson may not be putting up Darrelle Revis numbers, but he’s altering offensive and defensive game plans more than any corner in the NFL today. And that’s why he’s the Teaching Tape for tracking wideouts at the cornerback position.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • Brett

    Great article. This dude is the real deal. Doesnt get the hype like others, but my guess is every coach in the league would want him as their top corner. He shuts down the opposing teams #1, which is huge.

    • AZCardsFan85

      Peterson is widely known as the best pure cover CB in the NFL, No one does it better. He just isn’t a loud mouth like Richard Sherman, Peterson doesn’t need to scream to the world how good he is on national TV & constantly publicly pat himself on the back to know he is an Elite CB.

  • AZCardsFan85

    Peterson is by far the best pure cover CB in the NFL. Peterson’s value to AZ’s defense is immeasurable considering the scheme they play and all of the pressure they bring, Peterson allows them to do that. At just 26 years old, Peterson is going to be one of the games best elite corners for years to come as well.
    AZs secondary is loaded again this next year and will again be one of the best in the league & will compete for the honor of thee best. At Safety Arizona now has arguably the best safety core in the league with elite All-Pro FS/CB Tyrann Mathieu fully healthy back to form, healthy Mathieu is arguably the best in the game. Behind Mathieu Arizona drafted uber athletic 5″10/200pd S/SCB Budda Baker who’s game/ability Mirror’s Mathieu’s. Baker is going to be a beast in the NFL & I’d bet money a perennial Pro-Bowl player. Playing down in the box at SS is 5″11/205pd SS Antoine Bethea who AZ mainly is using in run support & as a hitter, they are depending on him to cover. Those 3 will all on the field at the same time in Arizona’s Nickel defense, which they run the majority of the time. Rotational 6″1/210pd Tyvon Branch w/ 4.28 40spd is an excellent back-up/rotational cover man. I think All-Pro ST/CB 6″1/200pd Justin Bethel will win the #2CB job, with his foot now healthy he is a very good above average CB, He was playing at a very high level once his foot fully healed up at the end of last season. In the slot All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu takes away teams top slot WR & at the #1CB position is the best CB in the game elite All-Pro CB Patrick Peterson, whom takes away the opposing teams #1 receiver. AZ is going to have one of the best secondaries and overall defenses in the NFL & with AZ having an elite pass rush that is one of the leagues best (lead NFL in sacks last year) the Cardinals pass rush is just going to make their job that much easier.

    • Zach

      I don’t know if your pass rush will be the same without Calais Campbell and there will probably be a drop off from Jefferson and Bethea. But if Baker and Riddick can make an impact in their rookie years you’ll have a very tough defense

      • AZCardsFan85

        AZs pass rush wasn’t built around Calais, only reason Calais was as good as he was last season is because of Chandler Jones, with Jones behind him he no long had to deal with double teams every play.

        AZ has several very good pass rushing Defensive Linemen, and Robert Nkimdiche, who is an excellent interior pass rusher, is taking over full time in Campbells place. On the outside AZ has last years most productive OLB Duo with two elite rushers in Chandler Jones (11.5sks) and Markus Golden (12.5sks). Jarvis Jones looks much better in this scheme as a 3rd pass rusher. Hassan Reddick can rush both inside and outside at OLB. Reddick will also pair with Bucannon (and Dansby on occasion) Blitzing up the middle with AZ running a lot more double A-Gap Blitzs this year now that they have the personnel.
        In Arizona’s 4 man front or Nascar package AZ will run Markus Golden, Rodney Gunter, Robert Nkimdiche and Chandler Jones as their 4 down linemen, with Jarvis Jones , Deone Bucannon, & at OLB Hasson Reddick, which makes for an extremely dangerous pass rushing front in their speed package…

        Jefferson’s problem was his athleticism, he had none. He ran a 4.75 coming out. Bethea will be just in a Box role. In their nickel package AZ will have 3 safeties on the field, Bethea, Elite All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu and rookie S/CB Budda Baker making AZ extremely versatile on the backend.

        The Defense will be even better this year. AZ lead the NFL in sacks last year, they still have a lethal pass rush up front with a lockdown secondary on the backend, and the pass rush will only make the DBs job’s that much easier.

  • Andre Taylor

    Patrick Peterson is by far the best CB in the NFL, this article suggest that you can still be a shut down CB even if you don’t travel. Well thats pure BS, no team stays in a man to man defense the entire game. However if you are mainly a cover 2 or 3 zone CB ala Richard Sherman and Josh Norman, then you are not a shut down CB. There are only a select few that travel, like Janoris Jenkins, Jalen Ramsey, Xavier Rhodes, Macus Peters, Darius Slay, Casey Hayward and of course Peterson. No im not saying that if a guy is a zone CB, that he isn’t talented. There is nothing wrong with a guy excelling in a good team defense. Sherman benefits the most of any CB in the NFL playing with 2 ALL-PRO Safeties in SS Cam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. The Seahawk defense as a whole is very good, Sherman of course hypes his own self and gets a fair amount of praise. To be considered a true shut down CB, then that player should be consistently shadowing the opponents best receiver. Deion Sanders was the absolute best ive seen in my lifetime, Revis was a close 2nd and was more physical in the run game. Todays CB get to hide behind the rage of cover 2 and 3 schemes that most DC use in their secondary, however unless you are manned up on the best a vast majority of the time. Calling yourself a shut down CB is a joke, while Peterson clamp down on Julio Jones. Even with help from Earl Thomas and Cam Chancellor, Jones tore through the Seahawks secondary. There lies the difference between Peterson and the rest of the CB’s, he is by far the best.