Cardinals take a pass on first down


Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Arizona Cardinals have run the ball well in certain situations, particularly in short yardage, but they aren't lining up and pushing opponents off the ball consistently.

In other words, this is still a pass-oriented team.

The Cardinals have averaged 3.29 yards per carry on first down during their 4-2 start. Only the Bears (2.53) and Colts (2.5) have averaged fewer yards rushing on first down. The results are quite different when the Cardinals pass. Arizona has averaged 7.66 yards per pass play on first down, fifth-best in the league.

The chart shows the Cardinals' first-down passing production by personnel group during their 30-24 overtime victory over Dallas in Week 6. They ran the ball pretty well on first down in that game. But their pass production on first down was outstanding: 10.9 yards per attempt and 10 first downs on 16 plays. Note that 14 of the 16 first-down plays featured three or four wide receivers on the field.

Strong production on first down helps sets up favorable third-down distances, playing to the Cardinals' strength. Despite the modest production on first-down rushes, Tim Hightower has converted all 10 attempts on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1, the best short-yardage production in the league.

I've put together a detailed personnel-usage report on the Cardinals for their game against the Cowboys. This features the usual play-by-play sheet and the usual personnel production sheet, plus three situational personnel sheets (covering first, second and third downs). This is an expanded file, just under 1 megabyte in size. Download here.

I'll be watching to see how the Cardinals perform on first down against the Panthers. Arizona hasn't faced a defense this season as good as the Panthers' defense, in my view. I would not expect the Cardinals to run consistently well on first down. But if they can throw it effectively, they can make life much easier on third down, a key to sustaining drives.