The Los Angeles Rams have jumped out to an 8-1 record, but concerns about their underperforming secondary have risen in recent games. Cornerback Marcus Peters has drawn scrutiny amidst adjusting his new role, so we’re breaking down his performance.
As the Los Angeles Rams overhauled their cornerback position this past off-season in an effort to go all-in on winning a Super Bowl, their key acquisition was All-Pro Marcus Peters for second and fourth-round picks.
The 25-year-old was made available despite distinguishing himself on a potential Hall of Fame pace with his penchant for interceptions and rapidly improved coverage skills. But Peters’ early tenure with the Rams has generated more fireworks for opposing teams than it has for himself.
As I have for each of the last four seasons, I hit the coaches’ film to chart and review all of the Rams’ defensive snaps to see how Peters is performing beyond being targeted. This process allows me to see how consistently he’s at the hip of the receiver when the ball is released, which is usually considered a successful snap for defenses. A good process will eventually lead to quality results, and Peters’ process was stellar after his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
I detailed how I rate cornerback success in my 2017-2018 Corner Handbook. By using those same measures, Peters was the second-most consistent corner in 2017 at staying in position to challenge at the catch point in man assignments, only behind behind Casey Hayward. Many of Peters’ detractors point to his willingness to jump routes, but that hasn’t been the case since his first-year in the league.
Just looking at man coverage success rates, Peters’ 2017 rates (80 percent combined, 75 percent in press, and 82.2 percent in off-coverage) aren’t too dissimilar to 2018 (77.3 percent overall, 69 percent in press, 82.7 percent in off, and 77 percent in the slot). His overall success rate of 77.37 in 2018 would still have ranked eighth in the NFL last year.
This helps tell us that Peters has been unlikely when targeted. Every cornerback gets beaten, it’s just whether or not the quarterback is looking that direction and delivers an accurate ball, and if the receiver executes the catch. The point of this success rate method is to look at every man coverage snap and determine positioning regardless of targets to help highlight who has repeatable processes.
His statistics have been notably worse, though, and that’s what the public has noticed. Comparing the production he allowed with the Chiefs in 2017 and 2018 doesn’t provide full context, but it helps highlight that he’s been less effective in his new role.
He allowed 28 completions on 57 targets for 352 yards and three touchdowns in 2017. This year, he’s already given up 23 receptions on 38 targets for 463 yards and five touchdowns. I consider four of those touchdowns to be “blown”, where he was simply out of proper position to challenge at the catch point.
One of the reasons that Peters has seen an increase of targets has been how defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has used him. Peters was almost exclusively a left cornerback for the Chiefs, and the vast majority of his snaps came off the line of scrimmage and without safety help. He mastered this alignment over his first three seasons.
But with the Rams, and especially since Aqib Talib went down with injury, that has changed. Peters already has more slot snaps than last year, and his press snaps are almost equal just nine games in. Phillips is asking him to do more even beyond this, including switching between right and left cornerback as well as shadowing receivers.
Peters suffered a calf injury in Week 3 against the Los Angeles Chargers, and this may have something to do with his struggles in the two weeks directly after. He allowed seven receptions for 111 yards and three touchdowns in those two games. But Peters claimed to be fine, and he still is accountable for his play if he’s on the field.
Let’s look at the touchdowns he’s allowed to further delve into his mistakes and give some context.
The first touchdown he allowed this season came Week 3, about one quarter prior to his injury. This is the lone “in position” touchdown he’s had, as the deep post was well covered. But unfortunately for Peters, the throw was indefensible, and Williams made the difficult catch.
Of note for the defensive scheme is that the Rams were playing Cover 4 pattern match, which has the safeties reading the release of the receivers to dictate their play. The dig-post combination has destroyed pattern matching over the past two years as the corner often leaves his man assignment for the underneath route, while the safety also bites underneath as well.
Peters correctly carries Williams upfield, switching from a zone drop to man due to his release at the stem. Philip Rivers and Williams were simply better here.
His second touchdown allowed is more difficult to judge. Like the first touchdown, this required an excellent throw. Most quarterbacks would not have used touch as well as Kirk Cousins did, and Peters would’ve had a pass breakup or interception.
Still, his hedge was dangerous. He didn’t drop quite far enough in an effort to create a play and it cost him. This could’ve been an “in position” score allowed due to the difficulty of the throw, but I docked him because of the risk.
Things got ugly in Week 5, which was the first time it actually looked like his injury may have affected his play. In the above play, Peters is playing off coverage within a Cover 3 call. He has deep safety help, but the deep man is on the far hash and unable to make up the distance with the line of scrimmage at the 30.
Seahawks receiver David Moore was able to get Peters to bite hard on a slant-n-go, and it was over from there. This is something Peters has done much better on over the past few seasons, but was caught looking to make a play. Maybe he was trying to get an early jump due to his calf, but it’s more likely he just misread the route.
Later in the game, Tyler Lockett was able to sprint past Peters en-route to a 39-yard score. It appears the Rams were playing an inverted Cover 2 robber, which puts immense pressure on the corners. As talented as Peters is, his top-end speed isn’t elite, and Lockett’s one of the faster playmakers in the league.
A brief hesitation by Peters was all Lockett needed to create five yards of separation. He slowed his backpedal when Lockett was about to cut and had no chance of recovering by that point. The aggressive run-stopping defensive call greatly backfired as the Seahawks exploited the mismatch and blocked effectively.
It’s a clear loss for Peters again, but also notably aggressive from Phillips. Most corners would lose in that situation.
Most of the damage that has been done in Peters’ direction came in the previous two weeks, and especially the play above. Peters shadowed Davante Adams and Michael Thomas for all but a handful of snaps, and allowed 12 receptions on 16 targets for 261 yards. The numbers are ugly, with 212 of those yards being “blown” and out of position.
The above touchdown produced 72 of those yards. Peters is isolated again without safety help, and Michael Thomas runs a slot fade. Thomas used his strength and acceleration to create space upfield, and Peters had no other way to react than to leap for the ball in desperation. He was beaten badly this time, with his own speed and acceleration looking pedestrian.
The stark difference in athleticism between the two receivers and Peters highlights why he’s so often been an off-ball corner. He’s easily the best corner in the league at creating turnovers in off-man, but two elite receivers who play physically through routes and can separate with their quickness had him reeling. The Rams must offer him more favorable situations.
Of course, not all has been bad for Peters. In terms of consistency, he’s been at a similar level as last year. The Rams are often showing their coverages pre-snap, and offenses know there’s little safety help. Peters has then been punished with targets at an unusually high rate, even for what can be considered losses.
The Rams shouldn’t panic but should adjust. His injury doesn’t seem to be a major factor in these big plays, but rather a unit that’s not disguising their scheme pre-snap, and has struggled to generate help coverage from their safeties. When Talib comes back, expect Peters to be more settled into one role and not juggling between three corner spots.
For Peters, he should must stay cognizant of his surroundings and strengths. He’s been challenged by an extremely good set of receivers and hasn’t always accounted for their talents. It may be fair to say he’s disappointed, but his process has been solid enough to be optimistic that he and the Rams will have better games coming soon.