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Monson: The scene is set for Patrick Peterson to roll back the years in Mike Zimmer's defense

Cardinals' Patrick Peterson (21) takes the field before a game against the Eagles at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. on Dec. 20, 2020. Cardinals Vs Eagles

Patrick Peterson was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL when he was at his best, but those days appear to be long behind him. His PFF overall grade, which peaked in the 80s, slipped to a mark of only 55.2 last season, the lowest since his rookie year.

The Arizona Cardinals‘ decision to move on from one of their greatest ever players makes sense, but can Peterson enjoy a late-career resurgence within the Minnesota Vikings defense under Mike Zimmer?  Zimmer has a history of getting quality play out of proven veterans late into their careers. For a time, it seemed as if Terence Newman would go on forever and still play well after he produced an overall PFF grade of 83.0 back in 2017 when he was approaching 40 years of age.

Peterson, now 31, is still some way shy of Newman’s late-career age, and the change in role and responsibilities within his new defense may go a long way toward offsetting whatever decline in athleticism age inevitably brings.

The calling card of Zimmer’s defense is that it runs a little bit of everything on the back end. We tend to think of them as a split-safety defense that runs a lot of Cover 2, 4 and 6, and while that isn’t untrue, it probably undersells how often they actually run single-high safety coverages.

Over the last three years, the Vikings' two most commonly deployed coverage shells have been Cover 1 and Cover 3, but each has been used on only 16.1% of defensive snaps, while two more coverage shells made up 15.1% and 14.7%.

Coverage shell Snaps % of snaps
Cover 0 93 2.9%
Cover 1 518 16.1%
Cover 2 485 15.1%
Cover 2 Man 68 2.1%
Cover 3 517 16.1%
Cover 3 Seam 156 4.9%
Cover 4 472 14.7%
Cover 6 274 8.5%
Other
(goal line, red zone, prevent, bracket, etc.)
174 5.4%

The strength of the Vikings scheme is that they make you prepare to face anything and everything. And that’s also what can help veteran players perform well and see young players struggle comparatively.

In 2020, when Minnesota’s secondary was loaded with rookies and young cornerbacks across the board, Zimmer commented that the learning curve for his defense was like needing to matriculate from kindergarten to a masters program, and the team needed those players to achieve that within one season of play. And for many players, that one season was their first.

Peterson has been in the league for years and has played within multiple defensive schemes. He has a built-in data bank of knowledge of how to play in all of the coverages he will be tasked with that can only come with a decade of experience at this level.

If we look at Peterson’s play over the last couple of years, we can see some interesting splits in performance depending on the coverage the team has been running. Since the beginning of 2019, Peterson has earned a dismal 45.8 PFF coverage grade as a part of a man-coverage shell. He has given up five touchdowns and a passer rating of 114.1 when targeted.

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