After ‘incredibly difficult’ process, Peters returns to Cardinals defensive line in big way

After suffering an injury and experiencing “a rollercoaster of emotions,” Arizona nose tackle Cory Peters is back and making an impact with the defensive front. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Cardinals)

PHOENIX – Following a season-ending knee injury, a difficult offseason of rehabilitation and a healthy dose of uncertainty, Arizona Cardinals nose tackle Corey Peters has made a triumphant return to the Cardinals defensive front early this season.

Peters, who has played for the Cardinals since 2015, endured one of the most trying injuries of his career in Week 10 of the 2020 season against the Buffalo Bills. As he attempted to tackle Bills quarterback Josh Allen, he gravely injured his knee in the process. Peters was carted off and it was later announced he would require surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon, ending his season and sending him down a long, daunting road to recovery.

Nearly 10 months of rehabilitation followed.

Even worse for Peters, his contract with the Cardinals expired at the end of the 2020 season. The prospect of the 33-year-old returning to the roster seemed faint as teams made it clear they would hold off on signing him until he was healthy again.

Peters shared that sentiment and opted to wait until his body was back to football speed before reaching a new deal. It was a lot to manage.

“It was incredibly difficult,” Peters said the Monday after the Cardinals beat Tennessee to open the season. “When you have a major injury, a lot of the process takes one step forward and two steps back, so it can be very frustrating. A rollercoaster of emotions.

“Obviously with the contract situation, not being on a team, that creates more stress. But it gave me an opportunity to just focus on myself and what I needed to do to get back.”

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On Aug. 2, the Cardinals announced they were re-signing Peters to a one-year deal. With the contract negotiations in the rear-view mirror, the nose tackle’s full focus shifted to preparing for the Cardinals’ Week One trip to Nashville. It was no given that he’d be ready.

“When I had surgery, what we talked about was potentially being ready for Week One,” Peters said. “We weren’t exactly sure what that looked like. I’ve been very pleased with the process. I had time to condition and work my way back into things. I’m happy with where I am.”

Against the Titans, Peters took the field to play for the first time since his knee injury and nearly achieved what every lineman dreams about: scoring a touchdown. In a second-and-11 situation for the Titans at the Tennessee 19-yard line, Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones caught Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill attempting to roll to the right side of the field.

Jones sent the quarterback to the turf and the football popped loose. The pigskin tumbled end over end on the ground before Peters scooped it up and dove into the end zone.

As Peters danced and celebrated the achievement, the referees ruled him down before he scored. While most linemen would be bummed out by the ruling, Peters didn’t seem to mind as he addressed reporters.

He was just happy to be playing again.

“Once the game started and I was out there playing, that was good enough for me,” Peters said. “(There was) just so much excitement about being able to be back out there and playing again. For me to have the opportunity to recover the fumble and help the team, that was the icing on the cake.

“I think I would have been more bummed had the offense not been able to cash that drive in for seven (points). Once we scored, all was well. Just being back out there with the guys and being able to play again, I don’t think anything could have taken that feeling from me.”

In Week Two, Peters only logged one tackle, but it was a crucial one. On third-and-one for the Vikings from their 34-yard line, quarterback Kirk Cousins handed the ball off to running back Dalvin Cook, one of the premier power backs in the NFL.

Peters shed his block and met Cook at the line of scrimmage, stopping the back in his tracks late in the second quarter. Red jerseys swarmed, assisting Peters in bringing down Cook. The third-year running back exited the game with an ankle injury, taking away a key piece of the Vikings’ offensive attack.

Although Cook returned to the game, he had only 34 second-half rushing yards after piling up 97 in the first half. His reduced production was critical to Arizona’s 34-33 victory.

The Cardinals hope for another strong performance by Peters when the team visits Jacksonville Sunday.

Peters is one of several experienced Cardinals pass rushers who have brought the heat to opposing quarterbacks early in the season and has helped contain two of the league’s best backs, Cook and Tennessee’s Derrick Henry.

He’s joined on the interior by nose tackle Rashard Lawrence and defensive tackles Zach Allen and Leki Fotu, while Jones and recent addition J.J. Watt, a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, occupy the defensive end spots. Out of the plethora of experienced options, Peters is the most senior in his 12th NFL season.

“He makes an impact on and off the field,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “He’s such a great presence in (the defensive line) room, such a great leader. Him and Rashard are a great combination there at that nose (tackle) and I thought he made some really impactful plays.”

Now healthy, grateful and motivated, Peters is poised for another solid season in red with his position group, one which has an immense amount of potential. Just look at Jones’ performance against the Titans – five sacks, six tackles and two forced fumbles. Against the Vikings, the edge rusher had a much more mundane performance with no tackles and three quarterback hits.

On the other side there is Watt, who might still be adapting to Arizona. He has logged only four tackles and one quarterback hit, but Peters sees the big-picture problems the two present to opposing offenses as two dynamic players lined up on opposite ends of the Cardinals’ defensive front.

“I think it’s a nightmare for offensive lines,” Peters said. “The schemes that we put together and draw up, I think they provide another challenge as well. We’ve seen it throughout training camp and those guys have been giving our offensive line fits. It’s good to see them carrying that over to the game and having success in that area. I expect it to continue.”

Overall, Peters and his position group are prepared for a special season as the defensive line hopes to be consistent with its results across the duration of the 2021 year. From September to February, Peters hopes to be dominant and make the most of his opportunities.

“At a certain point, everybody’s number is going to get called,” Peters said. “We need everybody. I’m excited. We are built to last, to have longevity for the length of the season. I expect us to be just as strong as we are now in Week 17.

“When you’re able to make some plays early, you feel a lot better, a lot more confident. Things flow a little bit better for you, so that was great. Whenever we are dancing and having fun, the energy is great for the defense. Everybody’s just flying around having a good time out there.”

Mac Friday(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Mac Friday expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Friday, who reports for and does play-by-play for Pac-12 Insider, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.