Patrick Peterson is one of the NFL’s more personable players, consistently generous with his time and insights. But last week, the veteran cornerback declined several interview requests, saying through the Arizona Cardinals’ communications department that he wants to lay low for the time being.
Without saying anything, he said a lot about his mindset. Coming off a season in which he failed to achieve Pro Bowl status for the first time in nine seasons and was not voted onto the “Top 100 Players of 2020” list by his peers, Peterson is determined to distance himself from the not-too-distant past.
“Pat has always been a fun, playful, loving guy, but you can see there’s a different look in his eyes,” general manager Steve Keim said Sunday by phone. “It’s more about being laser-focused right now. There’s a mentality that, I’m going to fix this. I’m going to change the perception that I didn’t play well and that maybe I’ve lost it. I think he’s destined to have a great year just because of that motivation.”
The window into his competitive soul can be found on his Instagram page, beginning with a July 3 video post that starts with him going high over a receiver for an interception. The accompanying caption reads: About that time for a formal RE-introduction.
From the moment the Cardinals selected him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft until his final game in 2018, Peterson was consistently among the league’s best at his position. He had speed, athleticism, intelligence and an unbending confidence that resulted in three first-team All-Pro honors and a spot on the All-Decade Team for the 2010s.
But everything that could go wrong did last season. He missed the first six games of 2019 while serving a suspension for violating the league’s performance-ending drug policy, then struggled to acclimate himself to a new defensive scheme and the speed of the game when he returned.
According to Pro Football Reference, he allowed 204 more yards in coverage and 111 more yards after the catch than he did the previous season, despite playing in six fewer games. He also allowed quarterbacks to compete 65.8 percent of their 73 passes when targeting him.
What the numbers don’t reflect is that his slow start was matched by a furious final month, beginning with a game against the Cleveland Browns, the opponent in his July 3 Instagram post. Peterson had seven tackles, three passes defensed and an interception that day. His play continued to improve from there, although few took notice, because the Cardinals were out of playoff contention and headed toward a 5-10-1 record.
“When he first came back, he wasn’t right,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said during the offseason. “When you miss six weeks of fastballs and you come back and you’re seeing instant fastballs, it was tough on him. The last month of the season, I was so proud of him, because he became so self-aware of where he was as a player — and that’s hard for the great ones to do, to say, ‘You know what, I’m not playing good. Help me, coach. Help me with my football IQ. Help me with my stance. Help me with my fundamentals.’ That last month of the season, he was the best corner in football. It wasn’t even close. That dude played so good.”
Peterson is determined to not only pick up where he left off, but move well past there. He uses his Instagram page as his bullhorn, often including #revengeSZN in his posts, many of which became more pointed as training camp neared. Some examples:
July 21 — They wanted me to FAIL, but I ain’t FAIL yet! #theygotaproblemontheirhands #revengeszn ALL GAS NO BRAKES! #onespeedonly&thatsFAST
July 21 — I been here from the start! #revengeSZN #thetakeover and I’m not giving up my spot, nope not today!
July 23 — The past is your present and the present is your past, so I look forward to the future! #revengeSZN I think I know the way! #godgiven #followme
July 25 — All year LONG just watch! Light 4am jog. #revengeSZN
Aug. 1 — You can’t believe EVERYTHING your ears capture! #iguessigotmyswaggerback #revengeSZN
Aug. 1 — THEY question whether he falling off. I’m really gone confuse them during this #revengeSZN #lordknows
Aug. 2 — What most ppl don’t know about P2. I preform BETTER when all the odds stacked against me and when my back is on the wall! #revengeSZN #staytune
“I feel like he’s been — and still is — one of the best defensive backs in the NFL,” said teammate Chandler Jones, an All-Pro edge rusher. “In his Instagram posts, he looks very motivated. He’s excited. The look in his eyes — he has a different look in his eyes.”
Peterson admittedly was not himself when he returned from suspension, but he also lacked complementary playmakers. Even before Week 1, the Cardinals lost three projected defensive starters, with linemen Darius Philon (discipline) and Robert Nkemdiche (lack of discipline) being released and cornerback Robert Alford sustaining a season-ending broken leg. Linebacker Hasson Reddick also was hampered by a knee injury, and the unit got very little from end Terrell Suggs, who was released late in the year.
“To the naked eye, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, Pat gave up a couple of catches,’ ” said Keim. “But when you don’t generate (pass) pressure, that’s going to happen. That’s just a fact. The more pressure you generate, the easier it is to cover. It goes hand in hand. This year, I think we’re going to be better up front. We’ve got more length and athleticism, which is certainly going to help those guys on the back end.”
The additions include first-round pick linebacker/safety Isaiah Simmons, linebackers Devon Kennard and De’Vondre Campbell, and tackles Jordan Phillips, Leki Fotu and Rashard Lawrence. But the biggest addition could be a return to form by Peterson, who served noticed in his last video conference call with reporters in May.
“I’m not really into ‘watch this’ or ‘prove this’ but I can promise you this: This is definitely going to be a big year. Just wait and see,” he said at the time. “To whoever is doubting me or to whoever don’t think I can still play at a high level, just wait and see. … I think this year is going to be big for me. I’m excited. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. It’s bigger than it’s ever been. And with this being my 10th year, I’m very optimistic. I can feel something special.”
“He knows that he didn’t play his best football,” said Keim, “but guys like him, guys like (receiver) Larry Fitzgerald and (quarterback) Kyler Murray, you don’t worry about them, because what’s gotten them to where they are is their pride. They are prideful people. It’s not the money; it’s not about their Instagram page. They don’t miss games and they play through injuries because they’re dawgs. They love what they do. They love to compete.”
If that doesn’t come through in Peterson’s social media posts, just wait for his game tape this season. It will speak for itself … and for him.
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