The Steelers made news on Monday by announcing the signing of future Hall of Fame cornerback Patrick Peterson. The announcement came just hours after incumbent corner Cam Sutton agreed to terms with the Detroit Lions. Peterson will effectively serve as Sutton’s replacement in Pittsburgh.
Peterson will be 33 when next season starts. Naturally, there are questions about whether he can still play. Last season, in Minnesota, Peterson started all 17 games, collecting 5 interceptions with 15 passes defensed. Peterson’s interception total tied for fifth best in the NFL. His PFF score — for those who put stock in PFF — was 80.7, which was better than Sutton’s 71.6. He may not be the superstar he once was, but even at age 33, Peterson figures to provide comparable play to what Sutton offered. And at a cap hit of just over $4 million for next season, he’ll come cheaper than Sutton, too.
The Steelers would not have signed Peterson unless they believed he could play in their defense. Last week, I broke down Pittsburgh’s primary coverage schemes. Here, we’ll take a look at how Peterson fits them.
The Steelers are trending towards playing more man coverage these days. That may not be Peterson’s strength at this point in his career. But he remains an excellent Cover-2 corner, which the Steelers still play frequently.
A prerequisite of corners in Cover-2 is that they must tackle. Corners set the edge in the run game, and are responsible for the flat in coverage, where teams often throw quick screens. Peterson is not the most physical corner you’ll ever see but he’s a willing tackler, especially in space. He is effective at getting off of stalk blocks, like we see below, and is fast to close. Once he arrives, Peterson (7) prefers to wrap up rather than simply throw his shoulders at a runner’s lower body, like many defensive backs do these days:
On this one, Peterson closes quickly to seal the edge on a power run. Watch how he “gets skinny” by dipping his right shoulder to rip through the receiver, whose feet are not set on his block because he’s not expecting Peterson to show so fast:
Here, Peterson’s quick diagnosis leads to a picture-perfect form tackle. A willingness to play this type of football should endear him to Pittsburgh fans immediately:
In coverage, he’s a classic Cover-2 corner: long and physical, with good hips and ball skills. Watch him execute his responsibility perfectly on this route against New Orleans. Peterson is responsible for the flat here, and will sink with anything vertical if no flat route shows. The Saints run a Cover-2 beater by holding Peterson with the vertical stem of the slot receiver. Peterson sinks with Chris Olave, the outside receiver, but can’t commit to Olave because the slot could break out at any moment. He does a nice job of hanging in the gray area between the two routes, and once he sees the quarterback commit to Olave, bursts back to break up the throw:
Peterson’s quick reaction winds up bailing out safety Harrison Smith. Smith has deep-half responsibility and must get over top of anything up the sideline. Smith bites on the hitch from the slot, though, and is late reacting to Olave. A better ball from the quarterback might have resulted in six. But with Peterson’s sound execution, the Vikings catch a break.
Peterson will be every bit the player Sutton was in Cover-2. And, with his veteran smarts, he will allow coordinator Teryl Austin to continue to bluff from his Cover-2 scheme into complimentary coverages like Robber and Cover-7.
The biggest challenge Peterson faces in coming to Pittsburgh is Austin’s increasing reliance on the Cover-1 man scheme. The Steelers played the 5th-highest frequency of man-coverage in the NFL last season. Meanwhile, Minnesota was a zone-heavy unit that favored softer coverage and less blitzing.
That said, Peterson is a 12-year veteran who has played in man-heavy systems before. Mike Zimmer, who coordinated Peterson and the Vikings in 2021, was renown for exotic pressures, coverage disguises and leaning heavily on press-man technique from his corners. The clip below shows a double-mug look from Minnesota with both inside backers walked up into the A-gaps and a safety lined up on the left edge. Just prior to the snap, the safety rotates back into a two-high look while the corners play press-man. Minnesota brings pressure to their right, which results in a sack:
This is a look we see frequently from the Steelers. It’s Cover-5, which is man-under/two-deep, and asks the corners to hold up for two-to-three seconds to allow the pressure to get home. Peterson can do that.
When backed off in man coverage, Peterson retains good closing speed. Watch him here, aligned to the top of the screen in the clip below, close on a dig route to make an interception against the Giants. Peterson starts the play with outside leverage so he can protect the boundary, where he has no help. This makes defending an in-cut difficult. You can see as New York’s receiver makes his initial break that he appears to have leverage on a throw across the middle. He and Peterson vanish from the frame, and when they reappear that leverage has disappeared:
Here’s why. Look at how quickly Peterson recognizes the square-in and undercuts the route. Many corners would have protected the post here by retaining a greater cushion. But Peterson trusts his route recognition ability enough to get hip-to-hip with the receiver, which allows him to make the play:
In Minnesota’s 2021 game against Green Bay, Peterson was matched in man coverage a good deal against then-Packers star Davante Adams. Adams caught 7 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the contest. But when matched against Peterson, he had just two catches for 21 yards. Both were dropout routes where Peterson was in tight coverage, like we see below. It’s unlikely the Steelers will ask Peterson to play shutdown corner against elite receivers on a regular basis. But in this particular contest, he showed he could still get the job done.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Peterson are his intangibles. Mike Tomlin raved about Sutton’s football IQ and his ability to play a variety of roles. Peterson is no different. He has seen just about everything a corner can see in the NFL, and the nuances he brings to the position are things only experience can teach.
Take this play for example. Peterson knows that with the receiver this close to the sideline, and the quarterback rolling in that direction, an out-cut is inevitable. So, he plays the receiver’s outside hip in anticipation of a throw towards the boundary. This puts him in perfect position to break the receiver’s hands without having to go through him to the ball.
The throw, however, winds up low and inside. Peterson still manages to use his long arms to get around the receiver to deflect it. His ability to anticipate properly, and then adjust accordingly without drawing a flag, is high-level stuff:
This next clip shows Peterson’s game-ending interception from Minnesota’s overtime win against Buffalo last season. Peterson, at right corner, understands that on any pass at the goal line, defenders cannot play behind the receiver. They must get underneath and force the quarterback to locate a throw into the tight window between the defender and the back of the end zone. This seems like common sense, but so often you see defenders play on the back hip, like they’d do in the middle of the field, and allow catches in front of them that produce scores. Instead, Peterson comes under, where he snares Josh Allen’s throw to end the game. This shows subtle yet crucial situational awareness:
Perhaps the most important intangible Peterson provides is the opportunity to serve as a mentor to whomever the Steelers draft next month to ultimately replace him. Pittsburgh is expected to select a corner early, perhaps with their top pick. That player will not have to start right away, with Peterson and Levi Wallace ahead of him. Peterson and Wallace could both leave by 2024, though, which makes the maturation of whomever the Steelers select paramount. Peterson’s willingness to assist in this process could provide a valuable contribution even after he’s gone.
There are two big ones surrounding Peterson’s addition. The first is, how well will he adapt to a heavy dose of Cover-1? In particular, can he hold up in press-man, which the Steelers played far more frequently than the Vikings last season. Peterson thrived in 2022 in new coordinator Ed Donatell’s Cover-2 and Cover-4 schemes, which allowed him to play looser, keep his eyes on the quarterback and anticipate the football. The year before, under Zimmer’s more aggressive scheme, Peterson was not as successful. This could give Steelers’ fans cause for concern, since Austin’s philosophy is closer to Zimmer’s than Donatell’s.
Also, how will the Steelers replace the reps they are losing from Sutton in the slot? Sutton was their starter on the outside but still played 185 snaps as a nickel. Peterson played a total of 21 snaps in the slot in Minnesota the past two seasons combined. With Pittsburgh’s penchant for mixing coverages and creating coverage disguises, will the fact Peterson has such a low usage rate in the slot be problematic?
To Peterson’s credit, he wants to be moved around in Pittsburgh. He told former Steeler Bryant McFadden on McFadden’s podcast on Tuesday that he’d like to be used in the same way Sutton and Joe Haden were — which means all over the field. Haden is a pretty good comp for Peterson in terms of their effectiveness at this point in their respective careers. If Peterson manages to give the Steelers two seasons on par with what Haden gave them, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Concerns about whether Peterson can hold up in Pittsburgh’s aggressive scheme are legitimate. But whatever erosion he’s experienced from a physical standpoint he appears to have compensated for mentally. As he’s aged, he’s gotten smarter. He’s seen every trick from every type of receiver. He understands route concepts at an elite level. He has a high level of comprehension when it comes to coverages, and he knows how to work well within a scheme. With Minkah Fitzpatrick and newly re-signed Damontae Kazee at safety, the Steelers will feature three cerebral players on the back end. Peterson’s football IQ should also make him a great mentor for whomever the Steelers draft at the position. As a bridge corner to replace Sutton and help the Steelers prepare their future at the position, he should be a solid addition.