Editor's Note: In this installment of our "Play Anatomy" series, we're detailing the final play from Arizona's 31-23 win over Washington in week 13, when cornerback Patrick Peterson secured a game-sealing interception.
It's unlikely Arizona Cardinals' wide receiver Patrick Peterson is going to lead the NFL in interceptions anytime soon. When Peterson is at his best, teams simply don't throw the ball in his direction, as he has the capabilities of shutting down even the league's top receivers.
For Peterson to secure interceptions, he often has to go above and beyond his normal role, breaking on a ball thrown to a different player or catching a pass tipped in the air by a fellow defensive back. In week 13 against Washington, Peterson notched one of his two interceptions this season on the final series of the game, coming up with a game-sealing interception to keep the Cardinals' slim playoff odds alive.
This play showcases Peterson's elite anticipation skills, and demonstrates why he's regarded as one of the league's top cornerbacks.
With 48 seconds left to play and the Redskins driving, Washington still has an opportunity to tie the game with a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Arizona holds a 31-23 lead, but Washington is clearly within striking distance and has already enjoyed success passing the ball on this drive.
Prior to this snap, the Cardinals align with six players at the line of scrimmage, simulating a pressure look, with one high safety and four defensive backs essentially in a man-to-man look. Whether that's the coverage the Cardinals are going to play or not doesn't really matter too much to Peterson, because it's still the look he's expected to give at the snap.
However, before the ball is snapped, safety D.J. Swearinger walks up from his single-high safety look to simulate a Cover 0 man-to-man look. Right before the Redskins snap the ball, the Cardinals look as if they're going to bring seven players on a blitz, which creates chaos for the Redskins' offensive line. Because Peterson is aligned at the 21-yard line, he's able to see how well Swearinger times his blitz, and understands that if Swearinger comes unblocked, Cousins is going to have to hurry the ball away, likely toward Peterson's side of the field.
At the snap, the Cardinals do bring a seven-man pressure, which is an extremely risky venture considering they're leaving the running back unaccounted for in coverage. If Washington had audibled to a hot route for its back in time, the Redskins could have set up a huge play. But instead, the late timing of Swearinger's blitz allows him to come unblocked, which is what keys the next sequence of events.
In this situation, defensive backs are taught to keep everything in front of them, not allowing wide receivers to stretch the field and get over the top of the defense. In an all-out blitz, man-to-man situation, this is especially important, because a blown coverage could lead to six points for an opponent.
Because the twins receivers on the right side of the field are so close in their alignment with one another, Peterson and safety Tyvon Branch are playing an advanced form of man coverage in which the defensive backs are responsible for accounting for whichever receiver runs a route in their direction. If the receivers break quickly off the line of scrimmage into patterns, then Branch is responsible for the inside receiver and Peterson the outside receiver. If both receivers stem up the field, Peterson is responsible for the receiver with the shorter route, while Branch has the receiver in the deeper pattern.
Washington's receivers actually do an excellent job disguising their routes, creating a conundrum for Peterson and Branch. Because the inside receiver may still break in and because the outside receiver takes a deep stem up the field, Peterson can't decide between receivers early in the play. However, because the Cardinals have a seven-man blitz on, he doesn't have to. Knowing that Swearinger is set to come free, Peterson isn't really deciding which receiver to cover. He's waiting to see where Redskins' quarterback Kirk Cousins goes with his eyes. With a seven-man blitz, Cousins' first read is going to be his only read, and Peterson knows he'll need to release the ball within two-to-three seconds of the snap.
As a result, even though it looks like Peterson is playing off of the inside receiver, he's essentially responsible for him in coverage. However, he needs to make sure that the outside receiver won't get behind him in this scenario, so he waits to break on the ball. Still, once Cousins' eyes lead him to the inside receiver, Peterson breaks on the football and hauls in the overthrow from Cousins.
If the throw was on the money, the Redskins may have turned the play into a touchdown, because Peterson was about four-to-five yards off of the inside receiver when the ball was thrown. However, because the Cardinals blitzed seven players and Cousins had to hurry his throw, delivering an on-target throw across his body was nearly impossible, and his momentum was always going to force his pass to drift toward the outside of the receiver's shoulder.
By demonstrating a strong fundamental technique, waiting for the routes to develop, understanding the play-call and eventual impact of a seven-man blitz and using his athleticism to break on the ball, Peterson showcases what makes him such an elite defensive back.