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Cornerback Life Opposite Patrick Peterson

Posted Jan 7, 2016

Justin Bethel, Jerraud Powers know the ball is coming often with elite CB on other side

Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel, here in coverage against Seahawks wideout Tyler Lockett, has seen plenty of passes head his way this season.

There is a photo illustration floating around social media which depicts Patrick Peterson alone on a dirt road as a tumbleweed blows past him.

The message: Life can be boring as a shutdown cornerback.

As Peterson has re-established himself as one of the NFL’s top cover men, opposing quarterbacks have become increasingly hesitant to throw his way. He saw 65 targets this year, 25 fewer than in any other season of his career, per Pro Football Focus.

In the football offshoot of Newton’s third law of motion, there is this reality: Any pass not thrown to one half the field will go to the other.

“When you play opposite Patrick Peterson, the ball’s coming over there,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. People threw the ball over there when (Pro Bowler Antonio Cromartie) was over there. They’re going to do that. The level Pat’s playing the position right now, that’s just reality.”

This year, the other side has been manned by cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Justin Bethel. While Peterson hasn’t seen more than seven targets in a game this season, Powers or Bethel has faced double digit targets in six of 16 contests.

“Even if it’s a run, I just assume every play is a pass play, and every play is coming to me,” Bethel said. “I feel like that’s the way you’ve got to look at it – unless you’re Pat or something.”

While Peterson’s preternatural talents can make his job look easy, the opposite is true. Quarterback ratings continue to increase as the NFL becomes increasingly pass-happy, which makes life tough on cornerbacks.

“It’s an offensive league,” Powers said. “Corner is probably the hardest position to play besides quarterback. You can’t touch a guy after five yards, and everything is to the ref’s discretion whether you are doing something wrong or not.”

When things go wrong, fans are quick to bellyache. Powers calls them Twitter and Instagram thugs, a vocal group which enjoys letting Powers or Bethel know every time they give up a reception.

“You give up a 10-yard catch, and they think you’re the worst corner in the league,” Powers said. “Pat breaks up a three-yard slant, and they’re like, ‘Why can’t you do it like Pat does it?’ It’s just one of those things. We understand the nature of our business and what comes with it.”

Powers started the season as the outside cornerback while Bethel played sparingly, but the injury to safety Tyrann Mathieu in Week 15 changed their responsibilities. Powers has taken over Mathieu’s slot cornerback position in the nickel defense, which puts Bethel on the outside.

Teams have been quick to target Bethel, a player with great physical ability who is still learning the finer points of the position.

“He knows that he has to grow up,” Peterson said. “It’s a very pivotal point in the season that we need him. He understands that. He’s been great all year, coming in almost kind of as a role player and now he’s a guy in the game plan.

“He’s still fairly new at the cornerback position. He has all the intangibles – size, speed, the physical attributes – he just has to make sure he’s more patient at the line of scrimmage and get his hands on the receivers to take off the timing. Other than that, he’s definitely going to be an asset that can help us down the road.”

Bethel’s had his bright moments – the pick-6 against the 49ers and the end zone interception of Aaron Rodgers among them – and he’s had his struggles. Same with Powers, who has superior technique to Bethel but a smaller stature.

Both stay even-keeled, which is crucial at the position. Bethel said every time he gives up a big pass play, he just figures he needs to make a play to counteract it.

“When we played Seattle and (Jermaine) Kearse got that touchdown on me, in my mind it’s like, ‘OK, now I’ve got to get an interception. Now it’s my time to make that big play to make up,’” Bethel said. “Keep doing your techniques and make the play you know you can make. There were a couple (chances). I thought I was going to get one.”

There will be plenty more opportunities. Peterson estimates that with him blanketing one receiver, “nine times out of 10 (the other side) is going to get the majority of the work.”

Bethel isn’t technically the starter, but since offenses regularly use three- or four-wide receiver sets, he figures to see plenty of defensive snaps in the postseason. With them will come plenty of action.

“You’ve always got to stay ready,” Bethel said. “Like you’ve seen the past couple weeks, they’re coming at me. I know it’s going to happen.”

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