TEMPE, Ariz. -- The easiest part of Justin Bethel beating out Brandon Williams to be the Arizona Cardinals’ right cornerback might have been winning the job.
Now comes the hard part.
Bethel will line up Sunday in Detroit opposite Patrick Peterson. And with that will start the onslaught of passes thrown his way as quarterbacks will continue to stay away from Peterson. Last season, Peterson was targeted 71 times, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s just 4.4 targets per game.
Opposing quarterbacks attempted 547 passes against the Cardinals in 2016, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- and threw just 13 percent of them in Peterson’s direction.
Bethel knows he’s about to be thrown at more than he could ever imagine, but the sixth-year pro feels prepared for the amount of action he’ll be seeing starting this weekend.
“I’d like to think and say I’m ready,” Bethel said. “I’m excited. Preseason’s over. Live bullets now. Everything counts. I’m excited to go out there and I’m looking forward to the opportunity I’m about to have.”
Bethel’s not the only one who thinks he’s ready for what’s about to come. Coach Bruce Arians thinks Bethel is “more than ready” and Peterson agreed.
It’s been a long time coming for the 27-year-old Bethel, who was projected to be Arizona’s starting right cornerback a year ago. He was given his first extended cornerback experience late in the 2015 season, when safety Tyrann Mathieu went down with an ACL injury and starting outside corner Jerraud Powers moved inside. But Bethel suffered a foot injury late in the season, which slowed him nearly to a halt in 2016. He lost the starting corner job to Williams last training camp, who then lost it to Marcus Cooper during the regular season.
But Bethel came back this offseason healthy and focused. He outplayed Williams during OTAs and minicamp, taking the inside track to the starting job heading into training camp, when he ran away with the job.
Since May, Bethel looked like “a different player,” quarterback Carson Palmer said.
“He’s getting his hands on the ball all the time,” Palmer said. “He breaks on the ball extremely well and probably, athletically, he’s as good of an athlete as Pat is, I would think. I don’t know who would win a 40 or a 100-yard race.
“I don’t know who’s got a better vertical, but you’re splitting atoms between those two.”
What Bethel is missing, compared to Peterson, is experience.
Bethel has played 779 defensive snaps in his career, compared to 5,914 for Peterson. But Peterson, who led the NFL in coverage snaps against offense’s top receivers last season, sees growth in Bethel, especially in his technique, and specifically in how Bethel can locate the ball in the air.
“We all know he has the athletic ability to be an elite cornerback. Now it’s all about getting the game experience under his belt, making those plays, grow that confidence in himself,” Peterson said. “He’s going to have a lot of opportunities.”
With Peterson likely shadowing Lions receiver Golden Tate on Sunday in Detroit, Bethel will likely be assigned to Marvin Jones Jr., who had 55 catches for 930 yards and four touchdowns last season. Bethel might be just as athletic as Peterson, but he’ll be taking on a much larger workload than the six-time Pro Bowl selection.
And Bethel is ready for the challenge.
“I think the only thing you can really do is work on your technique and practice making the plays that come to you,” Bethel said. “For me, I think every time he runs a route, the ball is coming your way. I think if you keep that mindset of the ball is always coming to you, that you’ll be ready and you’ll put yourself in position whether the ball comes or not.”