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The 5 Biggest Threats in the NFC West - Part 4 - Patrick Peterson

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In the first three parts of this series, I discussed three groups of players in the NFC West: The Ignored, The In-Between, and The Threats. Finally, we are on to the first player among the 5 Biggest Threats in the NFC West. Each of these 5 men have their own column, with some highlights, and my thoughts on the Rams' best bet on how to stop or slow these men down.

Quick Story: I have been a Rams fan since the day they arrived in St. Louis. I lived there until 2007, and never missed a game, whether I caught it live or on television. When I moved to Las Vegas, one of the first things I did was sign up for the NFL package so I could still watch every Rams' game.

I hung on through the brutal last season of Linehan, and the 12 games of the Haslett era. I watched as the team hired Steve Spagnuolo, the mastermind of the Giants defense when they beat the juggernaut 18-0 Patriots in the Superbowl. I watched as the team started over with the youth movement; cutting beloved veteran players like Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.

I continued to keep the faith through the 1-15 season. I yelled to anyone who would listen that the Rams should draft Ndamukong Suh over Sam Bradford, but immediately let it go after the draft, embracing the new face of the franchise. I reveled in the success of the 7-9 team, coming just a few plays short in Seattle from making the playoffs.

I bought into the veterans brought in via free agency before the 2011 season, thinking this young team needed some leadership to be a true contender. I even placed a wager in a Vegas casino on the Rams to play in the Super Bowl. I didn't think they would actually make it, but the odds were too good to pass up. Besides, a fan can always dream, right?

Then the 2011 season happened, and my streak of having seen every single Rams' game for the last 16 seasons ended with week 12. It didn't end due to an emergency. It didn't end because of a wedding, or a funeral, or a graduation. It didn't end thanks to a power outage, or a loss of satellite due to a bad storm.

My streak of 16 seasons (and 11 games) ended because of the Rams' coaching staff, and, moreso, because of Patrick frickin' Peterson. Oh Patrick Peterson, how I loathe thee...

Patrick Peterson

"The fundamental question with Peterson is this: can I weight what essentially boils down to 10 snaps on special teams (slight hyperbole, maybe) against 1,000 snaps on defense and decide that those 10 outweigh the 1,000?" - Ben Stockwell, talking about Patrick Peterson not being on the ProFootballFocus top 101 players

Although not quite the same as the problem I had when deciding on the top 5 NFC West threats to the Rams, that quote does sum up the Peterson conundrum quite well. As a cornerback, he is currently average, at best. What ultimately gives him the number 5 spot is his punt return ability.

Peterson had four punt returns for touchdowns last year, tying the NFL record. He ended the season more than 150 yards ahead of anyone else in the league in punt return yardage. He was voted to both the Pro Bowl and the First Team All Pro team as the returner.

But all the stats and accolades aren't the whole story when it comes to Peterson's season as a returner. He didn't just return punts for touchdowns. He returned punts for touchdowns when his team needed them most.

The Returns

Carolina - Week 1

in week 1 of the 2011 season, hosting the Panthers and first overall pick (and eventual Rookie of the Year) Cam Newton, the Cardinals find themselves down 21 - 14 to start the fourth quarter. About 5 minutes into the quarter, newly acquired quarterback Kevin Kolb hits Early Doucet over the middle for a 70 yard touchdown to tie the game at 21 points each. After Carolina is unable to move the ball, they make the mistake of punting to a waiting Patrick Peterson.

Peterson catches the ball at the 11 yard line, near the left yard marker, cuts to the middle of the field, gets hit at around the 19 yard line but is able to keep his balance, shrugs off another would-be tackler, and is off to the races. This punt return ended up providing the margin of victory in a close game, with the Cardinals winning it 28 - 21 to move to 1-0.

One of the impressive things about this return is Peterson's incredible balance. He takes a pretty stiff hit at the beginning of the run, at around the 19 yard line, and is clearly jarred by it. But Peterson is able to keep his footing, and just 4 yards later, at the 23 yard line, he has recovered enough to shrug off another tackler and break into the clearing.

The other impressive thing in this return is Peterson's great vision and decisiveness. When he catches the ball at the 11 yard line, he has already spotted an opening, and immediately takes off. He doesn't dance around, or try to get too fancy. He sees a hole, and hits it, like a running back trying to get his body going north and south, instead of running parallel to the line of scrimmage.

Clearly, the not-so-impressive part of this return is near the end, when he starts high stepping at the Carolina 25 yard line, and almost gets caught from behind. This is a young player showing a lack of focus and judgment, and is to be expected. But the raw ability that Peterson showed in this return is still very impressive.

Unfortunately, for Rams' fans and for the rest of the NFC West, this return is actually the least impressive of Peterson's fantastic 2011 season. From here on out, he turns the difficulty level up to 11...

Baltimore - Week 8

(The only stand-alones of this return are very poor quality. This is a highlight clip of Peterson's 2011 season. It points to the start of the return against the Ravens.)

The Cardinals are visiting the Ravens in week 8, having lost 5 in a row after the win against the Panthers. The Ravens are 4 - 2, and are coming off a bad loss to the woeful Jaguars. The Ravens are 17 point favorites coming into the game. No one is giving the Cardinals a chance at scoring the upset.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, no one told the Cardinals they were supposed to come into this game and lay down. Arizona comes out firing in the first half, going up 10 to 3 on a Beanie Wells 1 yard touchdown run about halfway through the second quarter. On the following drive, the Ravens are held to just 11 yards, and are forced to punt from their own 28 yard line. Patrick-the-Magnificent makes them pay for their inability to move the football.

Baltimore punter Sam Koch booms a punt of nearly 50 yards, which Peterson fields at the 18 yard line. Once again, he shows his great decisiveness and immediately cuts, this time to the right side of the field. He slips an ankle tackle at the 24 yard line, then puts an amazing move on a second tackler at the 29 yard line, and breaks toward the sidelines. From there, he is able to split three Ravens defenders, shrugs off a facemask, knocks away an arm tackle, and then just outruns three Ravens to take it to the end zone.

This is a simply stunning return. Once again, you can see Peterson's incredible vision. He never misses openings on the field. Even the smallest amount of daylight and he hits it and takes off.

Peterson is also so hard to bring down. There are 5 Ravens players in this video who he either makes miss, or is able to break their tackles. He breaks tackles at his ankles, on his facemask, on his arm, and on his back. He makes one Raven miss completely with a sick juke. Peterson looks more like a character in a game of Madden than a real guy, playing against professional football players who want nothing more than to bring him down.

Perhaps more impressive than all of the above is Peterson is able to return a punt for a touchdown in the NFL even though his blockers do a piss-poor job. I counter seven missed blocks on this spectacular return. There is an illegal block in the back and a hold the refs somehow miss. One of the Cardinals players nearly gets in Patrick's way on his return, and he still takes it to the house. To reiterate: Patrick Peterson has an 82 yard punt return for a touchdown against one of the most well coached teams in the NFL, and he did it practically by himself.

St Louis Rams - Week 9

Oh Patrick Peterson, how I loathe thee.

The disappointing Cardinals are now at 1-6, and are hosting the equally disappointing Rams, also 1-6 coming into the game. Both teams are struggling on both sides of the ball, and it shows throughout the game. The Rams are never able to put the ball in the end zone, settling for three field goals. They also get 4 points from two safeties on John Skelton. The Cardinals have also settled for just two field goals, and are down 13 - 6 when they get the ball at their own 16 yard line with 8 minutes to play.

John Skelton is able to lead the team 84 yards in under 4 minutes, capping it off with a touchdown to Larry Fitzgerald, tying the game at 13. The two teams trade ineffectual drives, before the Cardinals punt to St Louis with 51 seconds remaining. The Rams are able to move the ball 40 yards to the Arizona 24 with 4 seconds remaining, when they send out Josh Brown to attempt a 42 yard field goal. The attempt is blocked by Calais Campbell, sending the game into overtime.

The Rams win the coin toss and get the ball to start overtime, but get just one first down, before punting to a waiting Patrick Peterson. Peterson fields the ball at the 1 yard line, goes right to just outside the right hashmark, cuts on a dime to turn up field, and gets between three Rams players. He breaks an attempted ankle tackle- somehow puts a spin move on Donnie Jones WHILE having his ankles wrapped up- accelerates back up to full speed, and outruns the last Rams' player to score a touchdown to end the game.

Wow!! Peterson does it again. He runs side to side a bit on this return, waiting for a hole to open up. His tremendous vision shows yet again when he sees the slightest hole open up, then has the burst and agility to cut right through. The hole he gets through can't be more than a yard or two wide - and closing - but that's more than enough for the most dangerous return man in the NFL.

He also shows, once again, his ability to break all but the most solid tackles. His ankle is wrapped up at the 34 yard line - with a Rams player bearing down on him - and he is still able to keep his balance. He puts a move on the guy in front of him, breaks away, and gets back to full speed to avoid the last Rams player.

For the second time in three returns, Patrick Peterson has provided the winning margin for the Arizona Cardinals.

St Louis Rams - Week 12

And now we come to the conclusion of my story from above, about why I quit watching last season.

After losing 5 games in a row, the Cardinals are 2-1 in their last three, and are visiting the St Louis Rams, who are 2-2 in their last 4 after starting off 0-6. Just like in the first matchup between these two teams, the Cardinals find themselves trailing. At half time, they are behind 10 - 3 to the Rams. However, unlike the first game, the Cardinals don't wait until the 4th quarter to comeback, scoring 10 points in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter to take a 13-10 lead on a 7 yard touchdown run by Beanie Wells. After the Rams are able to muster just four plays on the following drive, once again they punt right into the waiting arms of Patrick Peterson.

Peterson initially misjudges where the ball will come down. He makes a very good catch on the punt; stretching his hands all the way out to grab it and hold onto it. The momentum of trying to make the catch is carrying Peterson to his right, and it appears he'll take it to the sideline. Instead, he plants his foot and makes a sharp cut to his left despite slipping on the turf. Once again, Peterson parts three Rams' players, makes another cut, and turns on the jets. Peterson goes 80 yards, completely untouched, for a touchdown.

This would be the last touchdown the Cardinals would score on the day. The return gives them a 20 - 10 lead. It turns out they need every point, as the Rams come back to tie the game in the 4th, only to have the Cardinals kick a field goal and win by a final of 23 - 20.

I would love to say how great this return was for Peterson, and no team could have stopped him. Unfortunately, this return was mostly just bad coverage by the St Louis Rams. Peterson is never touched. The change of direction by Peterson near the beginning of the return looked so unexpected to the Rams, it makes you wonder if they thought it was against the rules to run anything but a straight line.

The only truly impressive thing about this return for Peterson (other than his blazing speed) is the initial catch of the punt. He clearly misjudged where it was coming, decided to try to catch it anyway, just gets it with the tip of his fingers, and is still able to make a clean catch that leads to 7 points for his team.

For the third time, Peterson's returns were instrumental in an Arizona victory. This return was the final Cardinals touchdown in a game they won by three points. The return against Carolina proved to be the game winner, and the return in overtime against the Rams ended the game with a Cardinals victory.

...And ended a 16 year (and 11 game) streak of watching Rams' games for me. The moment that Peterson was free, I turned the game off, and didn't watch another second of live Rams television for the rest of the season. I just couldn't handle the poor coaching and poor playing anymore.

After the game, Peterson was asked about getting another chance to return against the Rams. "I was actually very, very surprised," Peterson said to the Associated Press.

I should have known before the second return. After the Rams OT loss to the Cardinals, Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo was asked if they made the right call in punting to Patrick Peterson: "Hindsight (being) 20-20, I still think we did the right thing".

The Rams were relegated to the Short Cuts feature on DirecTV for me for the rest of the season. I already knew whether they won (they never did after I quit watching) or lost, so I could just watch the game in peace, knowing the outcome in advance, not having to worry myself.

After 16 seasons (and 11 games) of ups and (mostly) downs, I finally missed a game. Oh Patrick Peterson, how I loathe thee...

The Hope

So now that we know what makes Patrick Peterson so dangerous, what can we do to try to stop him? Luckily, the Rams have already made an important first step by bringing in a new special teams coach in John Fassel. Fassel's resume from Oakland is outstanding, having led the league in consecutive seasons in both takeaways, and in turnover margin. His unit also broke the NFL record for net punt yards in both 2008 and 2009, although Fassel certainly has to share a large amount of the credit with Shane Lechler.

More important to stopping Patrick Peterson is Fassel's record on opponent punt return yardage. Unfortunately, it's pretty spotty. He was in the upper half of the league his first couple years in Oakland, but was very poor last year - finishing dead last in the league - giving up an average of 13.5 yards per punt return. Considering Patrick Peterson's averaged 15.9 yards per return, Oakland gave up yardage at a level that nearly made all returners look as good as Peterson.

The Rams have made another key step in stopping Peterson by bringing in a new Head Coach. Jeff Fisher has been a head coach in the NFL since Patrick Peterson was just 4 years old. The odds of Peterson getting a chance to return a punt during a close game are virtually nil. And Fisher certainly won't be on the sidelines clapping as Peterson returns another for a touchdown.

But how can the Rams hope to stop Peterson when the occasion arises? A good way is to study the teams who did well against Peterson last season. Here are some of Peterson's rougher return games from the 2011 season:

· Week 5 vs Minnesota - 0 yards on 0 returns

· Week 6 vs Pittsburgh - 0 yards on 0 returns

· Week 9 vs Philadelphia - 27 yards on 6 returns

· Week 12 vs Dallas - 1 yard on 1 return

What do all those teams have in common? First, none of them let Peterson get into a groove returning. All of these teams were consistently pinning Peterson in the corner, were making him take fair catches, or kicking out of bounds.

Second, three out of these four teams were good at stopping or slowing down punt returners. They all rated in the top 12 in return average against them. The only team that did not was Minnesota, and they got a great game from punter Chris Kluwe when they played Arizona; not allowing Peterson to return a single punt of the four that he for an average of nearly 50 yards.

What conclusions can we reach about dealing with the threat of Patrick Peterson? Peterson is a great punt returner, but the major weakness of punt returners is the opposing team has to put them in position to make great plays. They don't have the ball in their hands every play, like a great qb, and they aren't out running routes and leaping over people, like a great wide receiver. Those players have to be schemed around, and then are still going to make great plays to hurt you. To stop a punt returner, there is a very simple rule of thumb...

...don't kick it his way.