Commentary

Patrick Peterson having record year

Cowboys' special teams face a tough test trying to contain Arizona punt returner

Updated: November 30, 2011, 12:54 AM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- When it first happened, Dallas Cowboys safety Danny McCray made a phone call.

He told Arizona Cardinals rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson to keep it up because he was checking him out.

Then it happened again.

McCray made another call.

Then again.

And after four punt returns for scores, McCray didn't call Peterson; he went to the film room.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesArizona's Patrick Peterson has returned four punt returns for touchdowns this season, tying an NFL record.
"When he got his first one, I called him," said McCray, who played two seasons with Peterson at LSU. "I was like, 'Man, you're doing your thing.' He got this second one, and I said, man, all right, so you making some noise. And the third one came, and I'm like, all right, bra, we coming to play and it's going to be a battle, and he said, 'I'm ready.'"

On Sunday, McCray and the Cowboys, who are allowing 11.3 yards per return, will face the most dangerous punt returner they've faced all season. Last season, the Cowboys gave up the fourth fewest return yards in the league at 6.23 per return. But an ineffective coverage game and an injury to punter Mat McBriar have slowed things this season.

"It's always room for improvement," said McCray, who leads the Cowboys with 15 special teams tackles. "If you look at the stats from last year to this year, then you would say there's a drop-off. We had a couple plays here and there that could be fixed just like with any team."

Peterson is a major threat when he gets the ball. He is second in the NFL this season with an average of 18 yards per return.

Peterson's four punt returns for touchdowns tie an NFL record for the most in a single season. He's become just the fourth player in league history to accomplish it. His touchdowns are from 89, 82, 99 and 80 yards, making him the first player in NFL history with four punt return touchdowns of 80-plus yards in a single season. Only one NFL player has had more punt return yardage through 11 games than Peterson's 558, and that was Oakland's Neal Colzie with 604 in 1975.

When a reporter asked Jason Garrett whether it seems Peterson is a threat, the response from the normally guarded coach was, "I think it's more than seems to be. I think it's a reality. There's evidence on tape he's just a dynamic player. We saw that coming out of school. I think everybody saw that both as a defensive player and also as a returner. He seems to be showing up every week making those kinds of plays. That will be a real challenge for our football team."

One of the Cowboys asked to slow down Peterson is punter McBriar, who is not having one of his better seasons. His gross average is 46.2, 12th among punters, and his net average is 37.9, 19th in the NFL. A nerve problem in his left (non-kicking) foot has bothered him when he plants. He missed one game because of it, and while he's pain free, there is some discomfort.

He's faced dangerous returners in the past, and contained them with punts to the sidelines or with high kicks that allow the Cowboys to get down the field and make a play. But sending a kick down the middle of the field is dangerous. It's what Peterson returned 80 yards for a score last week in a victory over St. Louis.

McCray said it's a cardinal sin to punt to a dangerous man in the middle of the field.

McBriar said there are no guarantees a punter can send a ball out of bounds. The placement of the snap has to be nearly perfect so McBriar can angle himself toward the sideline, and the coverage unit needs to surround the returner to make things work.

"I'd love to kick them all out of bounds," McBriar said. "It's not going to happen. It would be fantastic if it did. He's explosive, obviously his confidence is up, it would have to be. He's having a remarkable year."

McCray knows what he's up against.

"We got to move him around, try to take the ball out of his hands as much as we can, and when he does [get it], we just need all 11 players down there," McCray said. "We need Mat down there, we need me down there and the other nine. We just all got to be in his face and make him go side to side, move him as much as possible and be great tacklers."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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