After Sunday's 23-21 loss to the New England Patriots and during his Monday press conference, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said his team's third down defense prevented the Cardinals from coming away with a victory.
New England went 9-for-16 on third down attempts, and faced far more third and short situations than Arizona which was constantly backed up in third and medium and third and long situations.
In this week's first installment of "Upon Further Review," CardinalsSource looks at the Patriots' nine conversions and what went wrong for Arizona on each play.
Upon further review
3rd and 10: With 11:08 to go in the first quarter, the Patriots have the ball on their own 26-yard line facing 3rd down and 10. Jimmy Garoppolo is aligned in shotgun formation with three receivers to his left including Julian Edelman in the slot. The Cardinals basically played their nickel defense the entire game, so nickel corner Tyvon Branch is aligned as the team's slot corner as Arizona keeps just six players in the box. Linebacker Deone Bucannon is actually lined up over Edelman, who gives a head fake for an inside route off the snap and then breaks into an out route after three steps. Bucannon isn't fast enough to stay with Edelman, who makes the catch around the 32-yard line and bolts up field in front of Branch who made a good read but didn't have the speed to close on Edelman before he lunged forward for the first down. This one falls on Bucannon, as the Cardinals were playing man coverage and the Patriots are famous for throwing these types of routes in these situations.
3rd and 4: After the Patriots scored a touchdown on their opening drive, the Cardinals had New England set up for a third and long situation with the opportunity to earn a three-and-out. Instead, with Garoppolo adjusting the play at the line of scrimmage, rookie Robert Nkemdiche commits a confounding offsides penalty to give New England a 3rd and 4 opportunity. Garoppolo wasn't even set for a snap when Nkemdiche jumped offsides. With shorter yardage, the Patriots line up in a true Pro set with an offset I-formation to the boundary side of the field. New England elects to run a lead play directly at the right side of Arizona's front, and because the Cardinals were in their nickel package, they were outmanned on that side of the ball. No Markus Golden in the game, no chance to stop running back James White, who follows the block of his tight end to pick up an easy four yards.
3rd and 5: On the same drive, the Patriots have the ball at the Cardinals' 43-yard line and again align with three receivers to the left with Garoppolo in shotgun. Arizona only rushes four, but no one picks up White coming out of the backfield who catches a low throw from Garoppolo at the 40, and then spins out of the reach of Tyrann Mathieu who can't bring him down in front of the first down marker. This was a clear pick play from New England, as Edelman (the lone receiver on the right) ran straight into Mathieu to clear a lane for White, but nevertheless, this is a play Mathieu usually makes.
3rd and 5: The Cardinals have another opportunity to earn a three-and-out down 10-0 early in the second quarter as the Patriots have the ball at their own 21-yard line. New England sets up with an empty set, with three receivers to the left and two to the right. Arizona only has six men in the box, and the Cardinals elect to rush just four with their nickel package on the field. Garoppolo immediately looks left upon receiving the snap, and delivers a strike to a wide open Chris Hogan, who came free because the Patriots' executed a pick on Bucannon. The outside receiver, Malcolm Mitchell flashed toward the middle of the field, and completely stopped Bucannon in his tracks as Bucannon looked like he was playing a zone while the rest of the defense was in man. Arians said the Cardinals had trouble making checks against New England, and this may have been one of those situations because even with the pick, there's no excuse for a receiver to come that wide open.
3rd and 7: On the Patriots' first drive of the second half, they face a 3rd and 7 at the 36-yard line which is right on the edge of field goal range. Arizona could use a stop, and the Cardinals prepare to blitz Garoppolo after having limited success with pressure in the first half. The Patriots align two receivers and a tight end to the right, and leave Edelman as the lone wideout on the wide side of the field on the left. Garoppolo locks in early, because Mitchell has one-on-one coverage from rookie Brandon Williams. A 10-yard stop route is run perfectly, and Williams lunges at the ball instead of wrapping up Mitchell, who runs free down the field for a 28-yard gain. This is a costly rookie mistakes from Williams, who was first out of position and then failed to make a critical open field tackle.
3rd and 5: After a Cardinals' touchdown narrows the score, Arizona has yet another chance for a stop on the Patriots' side of the 50. New England has the ball at the 41, and unsurprisingly, Arizona is in its nickel package. The Patriots align three receivers to the right with tight end Martellus Bennett as the end man on the line of scrimmage on the left. Edelman motions past Bennett which signals Branch is in one-on-one coverage against Bennett, and Bennett does an outstanding job creating leverage against Branch with a hearty bench press of his body after a quick get off at the snap. Garoppolo locates a separated Bennett, who makes the catch, four yards beyond the line of scrimmage, turns past Branch, and picks up the first down. Branch drew the most challenging assignments all night, and lining up one-on-one as a nickel corner against a tight end on 3rd down is as tough as it gets.
3rd and 3: The first play of the fourth quarter is a critical third down for New England just outside of field goal range (46-yard line) as the Patriots lead 17-14. The Patriots start with an empty set, but motion White into the backfield for aid against a pass rush. Arizona only sends four, but a stunt leaves two rushers uncovered off the right edge. Garoppolo identifies the pressure, and tries to find Hogan on the left side of the field on a slant route. The throw is behind Hogan, who had a step on Williams and likely would have had a first down. However, linebacker Kevin Minter drilled Garoppolo and the Cardinals were assessed a 15-yard penalty in one of the worst situations an NFL player can possibly commit an error like this one. New England tacked on an ever-important field goal later on in the drive because of this.
3rd and 15: Perhaps the most painful conversion of the night for the Cardinals' defense was a 3rd and 15 with Arizona finally ahead 21-20. The Patriots were backed up at their own 20-yard line, and started with three receivers aligned to the right. Arizona only rushed three, which meant Garoppolo had plenty of time to maneuver the pocket. This proves costly, because as Garoppolo begins to step up, so too does safety Tony Jefferson. Jefferson moving up five yards from his spot because of the run-threat from Garoppolo was all it took for Danny Amendola to sneak behind him on a deep cross that gave the Patriots a 32-yard gain and a game-changing conversion.
3rd and 3: The Patriots' final conversion of the game came on the same drive, as New England had the ball at the Arizona 41-yard line in a 3rd and 3 situation with just 7:03 left. The Patriots used an empty set, with the running back White split out as the far receiver on the right side. At the snap, White darts in on a slant route, and beats Jefferson for a sliding first down catch. This moved New England into field goal range, and later in the drive the Patriots would kick the game-winning 32-yard attempt. Jefferson played well all night, and there may have been nothing he could have done about this third down pass, but the 3rd and 15 was costly.