It’s fair to say that Patrick Peterson loves playing the Rams. In his five seasons as a defensive back and kick returner for the Arizona Cardinals, he has picked off a Rams quarterback six times and scored three touchdowns against them—two of which were game winners.
In fact, when I sat down with Peterson in an Under Armour lounge at the NFL Combine last year and told him that I wanted to ask about his game-winning touchdown against the Rams, his response was: “Which one?” In 2014, Peterson tipped a Rams pass to himself and returned it 30 yards to put the Cardinals up for good in the fourth quarter. It was a very nice play.
But it was nowhere near as thrilling as the play I was asking about. That would be Peterson’s 99-yard punt return in overtime against St. Louis on November 6, 2011, in which Peterson disregarded conventional football wisdom and fielded the ball in the shadows of his own goal line, dodged several would-be tacklers, spun past the punter at the 35-yard line and sprinted the length of the field to end the game. It was a stunning sequence—the football equivalent of a mic drop. Even more impressive, it was Peterson’s third punt return TD of more than 80 yards on the year. (He would finish the season with four, an NFL record. Set as a rookie, mind you.)
“We’re around the football almost each and every day, so it’s like a baby to us. So it’s almost like… if I’m carrying my baby, I’m not thinking about dropping her. I’m worried about securing her and making sure she’s comfortable. So worried about dropping the ball? Not at all.”
So with all eyes on the league this week for the start of the NFL Draft on Thursday night, here’s what Peterson—2011’s no. 5 pick—had to say about one of the most breathtaking plays of the past few years.
Can you describe how the play happened from your point of view?
Well, to go further back, when I was in high school, me and my dad used to work out all the time—endlessly, after games, before games, on weekends—and we used to always go through scenarios on punt returns. The last punt return of the game, the team needs a touchdown or you need to put your team in a position to kick a field goal. So we always ran through those scenarios, and this was the first time this scenario ever popped up.
We went into overtime against the Rams and we stopped those guys. They punt the ball off. Donnie Jones booms it—I mean, just booms it. He kicked the ball at least 63, 73 yards. With 5.3 hang time. So he pins me back on the one-yard line. I always have this three-look thing, sort of like the Tim Brown technique, and I look and I saw that I had enough room, so I backed up and the ball just kept carrying back and I caught the ball. I didn’t even realize where I was on the field. I just knew I had enough space to make something happen.
So I caught the ball on the one-yard line, started running to my right and got a huge key block from Richard Marshall. He sealed out one of the gunners and I cut it right up the numbers, and the rest is history. And that’s probably the most memorable and my favorite touchdown of all time, not only playing in the NFL but in my football career.
You had that really nice spin move at the 35-yard line…
And I had to do it on a fellow LSU guy [Jones]. He plays for Philly now, and he tells me, “I hope you’re not returning punts no more! I still see you in my dreams!” But yeah, the spin move – I kid you not, that play was almost identical to almost every single punt return scenario me and my dad used to go through. Catch the ball, he’ll come at me, I’ll have to break his tackle, and I go in for a touchdown. Or I put my team in a position to kick the field goal to win the ballgame.
So what did it feel like afterwards?
Unbelievable. Because, like I said, me and my dad, we went through this. This was something I had practiced, and it finally presented itself. And I accomplished the goal that we set out for ourselves.
Was your father at the game?
Yeah, my dad actually was at the game. That was my rookie year and I had my aunties there, I had a ton of family members there. And as soon as I scored, I pointed right up to the family area.
As a general rule on punts, coaches and TV analysts always say that the returner is supposed to stand on the 10-yard line, and if the ball goes over his head, he should let it go. Was that the rule for you going into that play?
Well, prior to that play, I already had two punt returns for touchdowns that year, so I kind of got a little bit of leeway to the five-yard line. But going back to my technique, you’re looking at the ball and seeing where the gunners are. That gave me the ability to feel comfortable to go back and field the ball because I knew I had space to go back there and catch it. Any other time, there’s no way I’m going back there and catching the ball.
Because with the technique I use, I watch the ball, take a glance at the gunners to see where everybody is coming, watch the ball again, take one last look—it’s very quick—to see where everybody is coming and then watch the ball. And if I feel I’m in a comfort zone and there’s enough space for me to make a move on a guy, I go ahead and take the catch.
Once Peterson got past the punter, he saw nothing but 65 yards of daylight.
This might sound silly, but how worried are you that you’re going to drop the ball? Because I’ve seen a lot of muffed punts in my lifetime.
Ha ha ha! Honestly I’m not worried at all because catching the ball is like second nature to us. You know, we’re around the football almost each and every day, so it’s like a baby to us. So it’s almost like… if I’m carrying my baby, I’m not thinking about dropping her. I’m worried about securing her and making sure she’s comfortable. So worried about dropping the ball? Not at all. If it happens, it’s definitely a heartbreaker, but it’s not something I’m consciously thinking about.
OK, so you’ve got great hands, and you’re super fast. Why aren’t you a wide receiver?
Ha ha. That’s a great question. My dad actually was a defensive back. My dad was a tremendous athlete as well.
Did he play in college?
No, he went to college but he wasn’t able to play because he had a heart murmur. He had a medical issue. But my dad always told me that defensive backs will last a little bit longer than offensive guys. So I’d rather be one of the guys that’s delivering the hit versus receiving the hit.
Were you a wide receiver in high school?
I was. I was pretty much Mr. Everything. I was a receiver, quarterback, defensive back, punt returner…
Just keep you on the field.
Exactly, you name it.
Do you have your eyes set on Devin Hester’s NFL record for most returns for touchdowns?
That’s tough. Because my duties with the punt return and kick return game have kind of changed. They kind of steered me away from the return game.
So going back to that play – did your dad say anything to you afterwards?
Yeah, my dad did say something to me. He was like, “You remember when we used to always practice those scenarios?” He said, “I told you.” And he just walked away.
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