Patrick Peterson tries to find running room on a punt return last weekend in Green Bay.
The scampers to the end zone, the highlight-stealing runbacks, the anchor plays to more than one win a year ago – all of it made Patrick Peterson's punt returning something to behold.
Those factors also made Peterson's punt returns counted upon in 2012.
There was no way to expect another four touchdowns – special teams coach Kevin Spencer called Peterson's output "freakish" as a rookie – but production was necessary on a team that needed a boost on offense. If anything, field position could be changed.
More than halfway through the schedule, though, that production isn't there. What's more, Peterson has had issues just catching and holding on to punts, and the Pro Bowler seems like he is pressing to make a play.
"Is he pressing now?" coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I'd say that's probably fair."
"I'm not pressing," Peterson said. "I'm just dropping the ball."
"Without a doubt he's pressing," Spencer said.
Last season, Peterson had four touchdowns and a punt-return average of 15.9 yards. This season, Peterson is averaging just 7.7 yards a return, and has just five returns of at least 15 yards with a long of 26. There are multiple factors, and the biggest is something the Cardinals cannot control: Teams are smart enough not to let Peterson beat them.
Opponents have kicked it short on Peterson (Minnesota's Chris Kluwe), away from him or pinned Peterson on the sideline, making a return difficult. Too many times last year an opponent drilled one to Peterson in the middle of the field, giving him the world – or at least all 53 or so yards that comprise the width of the field – with which to make his moves. No longer.
It goes beyond that, however, said one of the special teams captains, linebacker Reggie Walker.
"It's as much on me as anything because attitude reflects leadership and I don't think we have blocked well enough for him," Walker said. "We are going to get it right one way or another. I know that. I just think we are trying to get used to how teams are playing him."
Walker said he and fellow and special-teams captain Anthony Sherman have tried to emphasize to the unit the importance of returns to a team that has struggled offensively.
"We need to score points, we have to put the offense in good positions," Walker said. "We just have to do it. We've been challenging some guys, and I know some guys will step up. But what we have been doing, it's been pretty bad."
Peterson also has five fumbles this season, although he has lost just one, a meaningless turnover at the end of last weekend's Packers game. Peterson's ball security problems have come in two games. He takes responsibility for his drops against both the Dolphins and the Packers. He actually said he was pressing against Miami, but because he knew his family and friends were all watching (he is from Florida) and wanted to do something impressive. The Green Bay errors, he acknowledged, were inexcusable.
"We have to say,'Look, if you are inside the 10, calm it down,' " Spencer said. "Ball security is first and foremost. We can't allow our frustrations or our confidence in ourselves to put us in not a good football situation.
"We talk about those (making plays), so I might be throwing gas on the fire at times. He's a young guy, he's Superman, but sometimes you have to keep your Clark Kent clothes on."
There is clarity to Peterson's performance thus far. Whisenhunt wants it to improve but there is no concern in his voice when talking about the subject. Peterson's opportunity will come, and he will capitalize, Whisenhunt figures.
Peterson is asked the same questions on the subject repeatedly – inevitable after his eye-popping plays as a rookie – but he isn't fazed. Teams are kicking away from him. He hasn't broken one. He needs to hang on to the ball. All of these things he notes.
But he isn't frustrated. On that topic he does not waver.
"I will continue to rely on the guys blocking in front of me and work trying to get to the end zone," Peterson said. "I will stay patient."
"Once it pops open," Peterson adds, flashing a smile, "maybe that can start something great like last year."