The love came from everywhere after Marcus Peters’ dynamic rookie season.
He was chosen All-Pro, made the Pro Bowl and won the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year award. Multiple players-turned-analysts praised Peters, including Deion Sanders, Michael Irvin and Eric Davis. But they also wondered how Peters would respond after the league’s offensive coordinators had a full year to attack his weaknesses.
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The answer, after the Chiefs’ 12-4 regular season in coach Andy Reid’s fourth year? Superb.
Peters earned another Pro Bowl berth by leading the Chiefs with six interceptions and 20 passes defensed, numbers that ranked second and third in the NFL. But Peters put up those numbers with significantly fewer targets.
He was targeted an astounding 151 times in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus. But after picking off a league-high eight passes and defensing a league-high 26, Peters’ targets plummeted by nearly half to 87 this season.
According to NFL Research, Peters faced seven of the league’s top 10 receivers this season — based on receiving yards — and did not allow a touchdown to any of them. That includes Antonio Brown, whose Pittsburgh Steelers will face the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton considers Peters’ recent lack of targets the ultimate sign of respect for an upper-echelon cornerback.
“You make a mistake, it’s off a little bit, he’s probably going to pick the ball off,” Sutton said. “He’s a guy that can take the ball from you, so if they can get the same route and not have to risk that element, then they might work the other side.”
All of which might lead some to wonder: With the stakes at their highest Sunday, would the Chiefs consider letting Peters pull a Sanders or Darrelle Revis on Sunday and “travel” with Brown — that is let Peters line up exclusively against one of the league’s most explosive receivers?
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton knows the answer, but it would be foolish to expect him to reveal it before a big game. During his four years in Kansas City, though, Sutton has never let one corner line up exclusively against one receiver, instead preferring his corners to stay on their respective sides.
“It’s a philosophical decision,” Sutton said. “It has nothing to do with (Marcus).”
Sutton, who was on the New York Jets’ defensive staff when Revis was in his heyday, emphasized the latter part of that statement. When one corner commits to defending one particular receiver, it affects the assignments of the other 10 men on the field, too.
“I think he was just such a unique player, just as far as eliminating a particular player — he could wipe them out,” Sutton said of Revis. “If you’re traveling with a player, everybody is involved. It’s not just one guy traveling — everybody has to go opposite. It’s got it’s own set of problems.”
Plus, letting each corner stay on their respective side — even if it allows a team like Pittsburgh to potentially avoid Peters — is a way for Sutton to show trust in his other defensive backs.
Those guys — particularly No. 2 corner Steven Nelson, a second-year pro, and rapidly improving No. 3 corner Terrance Mitchell, a third-year pro — have come to expect the ball.
“Teams aren’t going to throw at him,” Nelson said of Peters. “He’s a pick machine, a ball hawk, and teams don’t like turnovers. So with that being said, knowing that the other DBs are going to get opportunities, that’s what you want — to get your name out and make plays.”
Peters never lets his guard down, however.
“It’s a long day at the office for me, man,” Peters said. “I always expect the ball to come my way. Once you get relaxed and all that, man, (it’s trouble). I like to earn my respect, you feel me? If the ball doesn’t come my way, then hey, I guess I did a little bit of my job.”
Peters does have some experience in a traveling role, during his final year at Washington in 2014.
“I did it, I had a little bit of success my last year,” said Peters, who had three interceptions in eight games that year. “So it was fun, man.”
But when asked if he hoped he’d ever be given the responsibility of covering the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver every play, Peters was careful not to speak above his pay grade.
“When Coach Reid, and Coach Sutton, and (secondary) Coach Al (Harris) and (secondary) Coach Emmitt (Thomas) come tell me that’s what we’re doing, that’s what we’re doing,” Peters said. “I do my job — all the rest of that talk is (garbage).
“I do my job and worry about what’s going on in the Chiefs’ organization.”
When the Chiefs’ position coaches last spoke in early October, both Thomas and Harris praised Peters’ instincts while adding he’s still working on eye discipline. They said Peters can occasionally be manipulated by the quarterback’s eyes and beaten with double moves.
But Harris, one of the game’s top cover men in the 2000s, also matched against top receivers. He noted the importance of keeping your cool because the competition level often rockets when a top corner and receiver see each other play after play.
“That is key,” Harris said. “Sometimes, you’ll let the matchup take control of the game, and you don’t want to do that — you want the matchup to be the matchup.”
But while Peters is extremely competitive — his emotional nature will flare up — Harris said the Chiefs aren’t worried.
“We’re not afraid of that, as far as him going off the map or anything like that,” Harris said. “He does a great job in what he does and where he’s playing. Our defense is geared one way, and we’re not going to mess with the flow of the defense.”
That statement – which Harris prefaced by deferring to Sutton – came from early October. It’s unclear whether the sentiment about letting Peters travel has changed, or will. When asked later that month about the possibility, Sutton smiled.
“I haven’t thought about it,” he said. “They say there’s two boxes you should always stay out of — always and never. Don’t ever be in both.”