Mike Glennon’s snap count can be heard clearly. “EIGHTY!” His voice is so loud that it drains out the cheering crowd, putting it into the distant background. He’s under center and is set to take a crucial 2nd-and-6 snap. But he’s backed up at his 11-yard line, which only intensifies the pressure of making a big play and avoiding an even bigger turnover. He’s also a rookie, making this much harder, especially with Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson to his left.
Peterson is lined up in press man coverage on No. 1 target Vincent Jackson. He’s a yard inside the 10-yard line and a yard off the line of scrimmage. It’s about as close as he can get to Jackson without committing a sinful penalty. After checking with the referee if his alignment is legal, Peterson folds at his waist, sticks his rear end out and locks his elbows. This is the first fundamental of football, aligning the body properly so it’s ready to take action. It’s similar to how receivers line up, that is receivers not named Vincent Jackson. Jackson has his arms lose to the side, making it more difficult to gear up at the start of the play. But loose and lazy arms are common with receivers. No one knows why.
Before Glennon takes the snap, he has to know where Peterson and the safeties are. The safeties come first because that’s how coaches teach their quarterbacks to go through their keys. Here it’s a little tricky. There’s two safeties but neither are deeper than 10 yards, and both seem to be coming closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. It’s likely a part of a disguise designed by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to confuse the rookie. If film study preparation showed Glennon anything, it’s most likely that he expects the deeper safety, free safety Tyrann Mathieu, to cover deep while strong safety Yeremiah Bell rotates down into the box.
When the play begins, Mathieu opens his hips up inside and breaks toward the middle of the field. He’s the single-high safety in the Cardinals’ three underneath, three deep coverage. He’s responsible for keeping everything in front and providing over-the-top coverage, allowing cornerbacks to bite underneath if there’s a short to intermediate route. Bell, in the meantime, blitzes. Like most defensive backs that blitz through the center of the trenches, he gets lost in the mix.
To the far left of Glennon is Peterson matched up in straight-man coverage against Jackson. Jackson commits a speed-release at the line, jabbing his left foot outside to sway Peterson over so he had a free release inside. It doesn’t work. Peterson stays square at the line, doesn’t over commit, and instead bounces on his feet waiting for Jackson to attack upfield. This situation is very underrated and one of the biggest reasons why cornerbacks struggle at the NFL level. They open up their hips too early and are forced to trail the rest of the play. It’s crucial to be patient.
When Jackson finally releases, it’s inside. He lacks explosiveness doing it, a likely consequence from a rib injury he’s nursing. That makes it easier for Peterson to mimic his movements throughout the route, which he begins by changing direction to his left once the small cushion between he and Jackson is threatened. As he runs, he’s high-cut, which is to be expected from a tall and long cornerback. He’s 6’1″ and his arms are 32 inches long, making them very useful in this bump-and-run coverage he’s playing. He keeps his hands on Jackson until the break point of the route.
An overlooked aspect of Peterson’s coverage is how he squares his hips while bumping Jackson. They’re facing the receiver and are parallel to the sideline, allowing him to hand-fight and not lose ground. This comes in handy when Jackson breaks off his dig route 12 yards later at the 23-yard line. The route is sometimes coached with a sharp cut to the inside while other times with a rounded cut. It all depends on the coaching staff. It’s uncertain what Jackson’s taught to do, but it is clear what he does: he rounds it, and he rounds it so much that he’s unable to flatten it across the middle. That makes it difficult for his quarterback to drive the ball in front of him.
That also makes it easier for Peterson to jump in front of the route. He does this without wasted movement, dipping his shoulders, bending his knees and stabbing his right leg into the ground and then his left, which he uses to explode to the middle of the field. He flattens his break like Jackson was supposed to and makes it look like he was the receiver running the dig route while Jackson was the cornerback playing with outside leverage.
In the pocket, Glennon fakes the handoff to running back Doug Martin and operates without pressure despite the Cardinals’ five-man fire zone pressure package. He quickly looks to his right before setting his eyes to the middle of the field. Because he’s 6’7″, he doesn’t have an issue seeing deep, so he has a good idea of the depth level of Jackson’s route and the coverage. After patting the ball, he raises to throw it. It’s a tall release and the throw travels down the left hash before going outside of it. It’s chest-high and inside, thrown for a flattened dig route by Jackson. Instead, it’s run by Peterson. Predictably, it’s caught by him, too.
This was the mistake the rookie and his receiver could ill afford.