TEMPE, Ariz. -- It took just two plays Sunday for the Arizona Cardinals to find themselves facing a third down.
They lined up five wide at their own 27, hoping their first opportunity against the 49ers would jump-start their 30-percent third-down completion rate. Running back Andre Ellington was jammed for a second at the snap, then he broke into the left flat where quarterback Carson Palmer hit the rookie but Niners safety Donte Whitner wrapped up Ellington a yard short of the first down.
Arizona’s troubles on third down continued in San Francisco, where the Cardinals were 5-for-13. Their overall percentage barely improved from 30 to 31.5 but the Cards are still ranked 30th in third-down percentage. Part of the problem lies in the yard just in front of the first-down marker.
When Cardinals coach Bruce Arians dials up a third-down play for a rookie, that’s where they usually end up.
“When you’re the underneath guy running a flat route and it’s third-and-5, you expect to get five yards,” Arians said. “It’s not route depth. It’s not going out there and breaking out, then you would be concerned.
“When you’re the flare control to a deeper route, and you’re the option, we still anticipate you getting the first down.”
Ellington missed on the first down twice Sunday, the second time coming when, at first glance, he apparently go the first down. The play was challenged by San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and was overturned.
Ellington was credited for a 3-yard catch, one short of the first down. The Cardinals had to punt, down 15-14 and on the next drive the Niners extended their lead to eight. Ellington has nine receptions in 12 targets this season on third down, but he’s only converted three of them.
“It’s a little tough because in college you don’t practice that situation unless you’re the quarterback, really,” Ellington said. “Just being in the NFL, everything is so detailed and structured, you got to be on top of your game.”
And if they’re not, the rookies will hear it from Arians. Coming up just short on third down has been an issue for the Cardinals all season and making sure the receivers get past the sticks has become a point of emphasis in practice, veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said.
He was saddled with a third-down situation in the third quarter. Fitzgerald ran his route a yard past the marker and came back to make the catch right at the 10-yard-line.
“Obviously, you got to get past the sticks,” Fitzgerald said. “You got to account for catching the ball and the defender tackling you. It’s something that we’ve definitely talked about. It’s been addressed in the meetings countless times so hopefully it doesn’t show up anymore.”
Arians turned to rookie receiver Jaron Brown late in the second quarter on third down. He ran his route from the outside slot two yards short of the first-down line. When he went to dive for the marker, he was already out-of-bounds.
Looking back on it, Brown said it was simply a lack of awareness for him.
“That’s a play that shouldn’t happen and one that we got to know where the sticks is,” Brown said.
The routes will remain the same for the rookies. Arians won’t adjust their depth or their timing. It’s up to the players -- rookies or not -- to make sure they get the first down any which way they can.
“We know we got to get to the sticks,” said rookie running back Stepfan Taylor, who converted an important third down late in the third quarter. “On third down you got to get the first down. Coach has the play designed perfect for us to execute, we just have to go out and make the play.”