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“I want to be the best.”
Those aren’t just Patrick Peterson’s words. It’s what the rest of the Cardinals defense is proclaiming, too, as the team prepares for the start of the 2017 NFL season and a return to a top-five ranking for a third straight year.
It’s happened only once during the team’s 29 years in Arizona. That came from 2000-02, when players such as safety Adrian Wilson and linebackers Ronald McKinnon and Raynoch Thompson were patrolling things for the Big Red.
But ask Peterson, the All-Pro cornerback, and he will tell you straight to your face that this year’s Cardinals defense has a chance to be the best in franchise history. That’s saying something, considering the Cardinals have finished in the top five no fewer than 11 times since the club moved here from St. Louis in 1988.
“As far as the athletic ability, as far as the talent, as far as the play-making ability that we have, we definitely on paper have the ability to be better than last year and be the best since I’ve been here,” Peterson said. “We still have a bunch of new pieces, a bunch of moving pieces, rotation-wise, but I believe by the time Week 1 comes we’ll all be jelling on one accord.”
It’s a defense that lost five starters to free agency: defensive lineman Calais Campbell (Jaguars), safeties Tony Jefferson (Ravens) and D.J. Swearinger (Redskins), cornerback Marcus Cooper (Bears) and inside linebacker Kevin Minter (Bengals).
But it’s also a defense that led the NFL in forced fumbles (21), was second overall in fewest yards allowed per game (305.2) and returns its two leading sack specialists, outside linebackers Markus Golden (12½) and Chandler Jones (11), the only pass-rushing duo in the league to post double-digit sack totals in 2016.
The Cardinals led the league with 48 sacks and think they can add to that number now that second-year defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche is playing like the disruptive, bulldozing force he was in college at Ole Miss. They also are banking on their overall speed and ability to blitz from anywhere now that they have a healthy Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) and have added lightning-quick pursuers: rookies Haason Reddick and Budda Baker.
“You can’t underestimate the value of speed on defense,” Mathieu said. “And I think this is the fastest we’ve ever been.”
Not since Aeneas Williams, though, have the Cardinals had such a talented shutdown cornerback and game-changing playmaker as Peterson, who enters his seventh NFL season in the prime of his career at age 27. And it is there, with Peterson as the anchor by constantly altering opposing offensive game plans, where this Cardinals defense should thrive.
“I’m still not at my peak yet,” Peterson says. “I’m just getting there.”
With five consecutive Pro Bowl selections on defense, Peterson has clearly established himself. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher said he thinks Peterson is No. 1. Coach Bruce Arians, meanwhile, noted Peterson wants to go down as one of the game’s all-time greats “and he just might get there.”
“It’s just his consistency at being great,” Arians said, adding of Peterson’s efforts in training camp this year, “It’s one thing to come out and just be good every day, but he practiced harder and better than I’ve ever seen him.”
It’s all part of the dedication Peterson said is necessary for him to one day gain induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yes, he wants to be a champion and win Super Bowls. But visiting Canton, Ohio, earlier this summer when the Cardinals played in the Hall of Fame Game only refueled his desire to eventually earn his own gold jacket and bronze bust.
“That’s why I play the game,” he said. “I play the game to not only be remembered but to be the best to play at my position. Obviously, I know the NFL has a long history of great players, great defensive backs. One of them actually is my idol, Deion Sanders. Rod Woodson, the list goes on. That’s why I play the game, chasing those guys.”
Peterson’s work ethic has rubbed off on Cardinals running back David Johnson, who has also started dreaming about being one of the game’s greatest players at his position. There’s always the same car in the parking lot, however, when Johnson shows up early at the team’s Tempe training center to get in a private workout.
“I never beat Pat. I’ll get there about 6:30 in the morning and try to get some work in but when I’m coming in, he’s leaving,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what time he was there, I just know he gets a full workout in as I’m coming in.”
Since he knows he isn’t going to pile up gaudy interception totals because opposing offenses rarely throw his way – even though he always covers the other team’s No. 1 wide receiver – Peterson knows he has to stay in perfect condition to remain a shutdown corner.
“It would be great for me to get some interceptions. It would be great for me to get some touchdowns,” Peterson said. “But when you don’t get many opportunities, it’s hard to do that. At the end of the day, I’m still guarding No. 1 receivers. I’m still doing everything to put myself in position, but if I’m not getting the opportunity, what more can I do?”
Source: AZ Central | Bob McManaman | September 3, 2017