Vikings' Patrick Peterson: The teacher who is still learning in Year 11

Patrick Peterson is counting on a bounce-back season with the Vikings, who were in need of a veteran presence in the secondary. Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. -- Patrick Peterson faced his truth this spring when he became a free agent after 10 seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

Where he chose to play for Year 11 could either extend a career that includes eight Pro Bowls and three All-Pro seasons or lead him to an exit from the NFL earlier than planned. Everything hinged on Peterson choosing a team with a defensive system that would put him in position to bounce back from the lows he experienced the past two.

The 31-year-old saw how Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer prolonged the careers of Deion Sanders, Leon Hall, Johnathan Joseph and Terence Newman. Peterson is striving to be the next name on that list.

Five months after signing a one-year, $10 million contract with the Vikings, Peterson -- and Minnesota’s improved secondary -- are relishing the fresh start.

Since being drafted fifth overall by the Cardinals in 2011, Peterson became one of the top shutdown corners of his generation. But as he’s matured, learning a new way of doing things is driving Peterson in this next chapter.

“You know his resume, and he's coming here with a clean slate, and he's ready and eager to learn,” Vikings defensive backs coach Karl Scott said. “You might look at him as a guy that you can't coach. 'He's good enough, he knows what to do, just put him out there.' But it's totally the opposite of that. Pat wants to know, he wants to be critiqued, he wants to know what he's doing wrong or what he can improve on, and not only that, but when you give it to him, he's willing to apply it on the field.”

The model press corner

After finishing 2020 ranked 24th in pass defense, the Vikings sought out major changes within the secondary. They couldn't rely on inexperienced corners to carry out the complex duties of shadowing elite receivers on the back-end of the defense. With Peterson on the outside and Bashaud Breeland opposite him, Minnesota boasts almost two decades of starting experience among its top two cornerbacks with veteran Mackensie Alexander in the mix at nickel.

“Some of those guys got a chance to play last year, but adding some of these other guys I feel like the depth should really help us on special teams,” Zimmer said. “Because some of these guys that played last year probably won’t be playing first and second down, but they should be playing a lot on special teams.”

Peterson built himself into one of the NFL's best press-man corners. His awareness, quick feet and hip fluidity helped him excel at one of the hardest tasks in football by tracking every move of an opposing team’s No. 1 wideout with little safety help over the top.

“He's very patient at the line,” Breeland said. “He's one of the model press corners in this league. I watched his press days growing up (at LSU), watched him do it in the NFL as well. He's a guy with high stature performance.”

The elite athleticism dipped during Peterson’s final two season in Arizona. According to Pro Football Focus, since 2019 Peterson allowed a 114.0 passer rating in man coverage (five touchdowns allowed to one interception). Peterson fared far better in zone coverage with a 68.5 passer rating allowed and four interceptions (no touchdowns).

In a Vikings defense that featured more Cover 1 and Cover 3 shells over the past three seasons than any other coverage, Peterson will be asked to do certain things differently in Minnesota.

“I’ve been in the league for 11 years, but I’m not any bigger than anyone in this room,” Peterson said. “I’m always open for coaching, open for tips, anything that these guys can give me to help me better my game, prolong my game, as well.”

That’s clear to his coaches, who see Peterson’s evolution benefitting him as well as the younger corners.

“The best compliment you can give a DB or a corner is that the way I would describe Patrick is he's a cornerback,” Scott said. “So many times you hear these guys as lockdown corners or Cover 2 corner or whatever it is, but Pat's a corner, meaning that he does everything in his game, as far as his preparation too, he does rub off on the young guys. Some of the guys, when you want to have a model of who you want to be like or who you want to model your game like, you've got somebody in the room. The way he approaches it from being the first person out here from walk-throughs, first person in meetings, the questions that he has and he's not big enough to still take coaching.”

Teaching moments

Kris Boyd's eye discipline was all over the place. When guarding his man in practice, he was too often letting his eyes drift up to the jersey number across from him. By the time the ball was snapped and his receiver had taken off, Boyd was a step behind and couldn’t recover with his technique.

Peterson noticed this wasn’t just an issue for Boyd, who is entering his third season. Even a five-year veteran like Tye Smith was asking how he could improve his press technique, so Peterson passed on a tip to his teammates.

Peterson wears a visor every morning during walk-through to force his eyes to stay low and locked in on a receiver’s hips so when he begins his route Peterson can use timing steps to activate his feet and force the wideout to commit to a release.

It’s become a daily habit for Peterson. Now, it’s also something Boyd does everyday.

“I took that, ran with it and it actually worked,” Boyd said. “When I did it here in the morning, I came out to practice and had a good day. After that I’m like, ‘Hey, is there anything else you can tell me?’ I stayed in his hip pocket. I’m not going anywhere. Anything he’s saying, I’m listening. That’s pretty much all the DBs that’s around here.”

“P2” as he’s affectionately called by teammates, carries himself with the swagger of a player with a resume worthy of the Hall of Fame and a teacher who is still learning.

Many Vikings defensive backs watched Peterson in the prime of his career so when he speaks up in meetings, his teammates listen.

“He’s really become a good leader for the defense,” co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said. “He’s setting examples not only with the way he handles himself, but as far as talking to the young guys, his communication. He communicates as good as any corner that I’ve been around.”

Success for the Vikings secondary also hinges on the development of the young guys like Cameron Dantzler, Harrison Hand, Boyd, Smith and Dylan Mabin, all of whom could be filling important rotational roles this season.

Most days that results in Peterson heading out to walk-through early to stand in as a scout team receiver to show his teammates a certain skill they can to use to gain better leverage or going out of his way to correct improper technique in between reps.

“Tips, pointers, he’s going to give it to you; advice, he’s going to give it to you,” Boyd said. “Anything you’re doing where he sees you messed up, even if you don’t ask him, he’s going to come let you know because he knows. He’d much rather let you hear it than not hear it.”

As Peterson passes down the skills that turned him into one of the NFL’s best, he's also still learning and evolving.

"Like my personal coach now Rod Hood always tells me, you don't want to walk away from the game with all this knowledge and not give it back," Peterson said. "That's what I want to do. I want to continue helping these guys and give them any nuggets or tips that I can give them to help them improve their game."