TEMPE, Ariz. -- Justin Bethel stood in front of his locker late Sunday afternoon, wary of approaching cameras, tired and sore after being picked on all game, when he was asked if Arizona Cardinals Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson broke a sweat against the Green Bay Packers.
“I don’t think he did,” Bethel said with a laugh. “Was he out there today? I saw him returning the ball. I don’t know if he played any defense.”
Bethel, a three-time Pro Bowler in his own right, was kidding about Peterson being on the field. Peterson played 69 of 72 snaps, and had what he’d consider a busy day. He was thrown at five times while defending four different receivers.
But Bethel’s joke emblematically summed up Peterson’s season. Peterson has been playing so well that he’s essentially being forgotten.
That’s what happens when quarterbacks don’t throw your way. Peterson, who routinely covers the offense’s No. 1 receiver, has been thrown at 62 times this season according to Pro Football Focus, third-fewest among cornerbacks who play at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps. The 29 receptions he’s allowed is tied with the Seahawks' Richard Sherman for fewest in the NFL, and his completion rate of 46.8 percent is second-best with one game left in the regular season.
Peterson has allowed receivers 335 yards -- lowest in the league -- and just 99 yards after the catch, fourth-best. A year after giving up eight touchdowns, Peterson has allowed just one (tied for second-fewest).
When compared with the rest of the league, Peterson’s having the best season of any cornerback across the board.
“I don’t know if anybody’s playing better at his position,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He takes their best receiver and he shuts them down and he’s there 80 percent of the game following that guy around, so there’s not that much time we play zone.
“Statistically, as far as interceptions, you’re not going to get any if they don’t throw at you but he’s just completely wiped out whoever we put him on.”
The receivers Peterson has matched up against include Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. None had more than 40 yards against him. The most yards Peterson has surrendered to one receiver is 48 in Week 2 to Chicago’s Josh Bellamy, who got them all on one touchdown catch. That was the first and last score Peterson has allowed.
Peterson has defended against 35 different pass catchers this year according to Pro Football Focus. Of those 35, 23 were targeted just once and 12 didn’t make a catch. His busiest games have been against Brown, Green and Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs, all of whom were targeted six times. Brown had two catches for 26 yards, Green finished with two for 24, and Diggs had one for seven.
Megatron had the most success against Peterson among receivers targeted three or more times. Johnson had three catches on four targets for 40 yards.
“For the most part those guys haven’t been showing up on the stat sheet,” Peterson said. “I feel I’m doing my job at a high level."
Yet there’s one category Peterson hasn’t been ranked very high in: Defensive Player of the Year consideration.
His name has been routinely passed over in the national conversation. On Dec. 1, NFL.com included Peterson in its “honorable mention” list while ranking Carolina cornerback Josh Norman second. On Dec. 21, Peterson was ranked fifth in TheMMQB.com’s Defensive Player of the Year vote, two spots behind Norman. In late November, Peterson wasn’t even mentioned by Pro Football Talk, which listed multiple players from Denver and Carolina -- including Norman -- as well as Oakland’s Charles Woodson as potential candidates. And Peterson wasn’t among the vote-getters for ESPN NFL Nation’s midseason defensive player of the year award, which went to Norman.
How does Peterson compare to Norman? According to Pro Football Focus’ coverage analytics, Peterson is ranked higher in every category except quarterback rating, in which Norman edges Peterson by one place. Most notably, Norman has been thrown at 90 times (ranked 37th) and has allowed 47 completions (17th) while making four interceptions.
Woodson was the last cornerback to win the award, in 2009 with Green Bay. Before him, Deion Sanders was the most recent cornerback to be named Defensive Player of the Year in 1994.
History says Peterson won’t win it. His stats say he should be in the running.
“I could care less,” Peterson said. “I guess if I get a couple TDs that’ll be a public-service announcement, but for the most part I just want to continue doing things that I’ve been doing this year: playing competitive football, keeping guys out of the end zone and for the most part playing sound football for 60 minutes.
“That was my main objective coming into this season, just playing 60 minutes of focused football and doing my job to the best of my ability.”
But it’s been an adjustment for Peterson to play entire games hardly seeing any action.
“It’s difficult because he’s a competitor and he wants to be challenged,” said Bryant McFadden, Peterson’s cousin and a former NFL cornerback. “But he also recognizes the lack of balls coming his way is a sign of respect.”
McFadden has become one of Peterson’s mentors and confidants. The two talk at least once a week, usually on Thursdays, to dissect Peterson’s upcoming assignment. The first thing McFadden asks is who Peterson will be shadowing. From there, they talk strategy, technique and fundamentals.
Having been able to watch Peterson’s career more closely since retiring in 2011, McFadden said there are a few reasons why Peterson has raised his level of play. First, he’s carrying less weight. McFadden estimated that at 203 pounds, Peterson is close to his high school weight. Second, Peterson has a better overall understanding of his position and the offenses he’s playing against.
“When I talk to Pat now, it’s night and day compared to when I talked to Pat two or three years ago,” McFadden said. “He understands the route combinations. He understands that if I get a slot wide receiver to the flat, I’m either going to get a curl concept or a slant concept.
“He’s prepared to really anticipate those routes and jump those routes and that’s been an amazing maturity factor for him and his game.”
Third, Peterson now knows his athleticism can’t carry him through an NFL season or career. But McFadden knew that’d take time for Peterson to realize since he grew up being the best athlete on the field at every level since Pop Warner. It’s resulted in Peterson becoming more patient at the line of scrimmage, making it tough on receivers to get the upper hand on him off the snap. McFadden has noticed that’s led to receivers simply giving up against him.
With Peterson taking away the offenses’ top receiver, the Cardinals’ pass defense has continued to improve. It’s second in the NFL in quarterback completion percentage to wide receivers (55.2) and first in yards per attempt on passes outside the numbers (5.38). The Cardinals’ 11 interceptions are tied for fourth in the league.
“He’s doing special things,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “You go watch the tape, people aren’t catching the ball on him. You put him on the best receiver every week, a guy they target the most, whether it’s in the slot or whether it’s outside, whatever it is.
“A personnel group comes on the field, he knows the three or four routes he’s going to get. Those kind of things are, they’re priceless. Those aren’t coachable things.”