- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's taken 10 weeks, but the Arizona Cardinals' offense is finally forming into what coaches and players expected it to be when they set out to install Bruce Arians' high-octane, high-yardage scheme back in April.
But there's a tempered excitement.
For as much as it's evolved, mainly because the running game has decided to wake up, the Cardinals' offense still gets snagged on third down.
“I think it's coming,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “I think one of the biggest things you gotta do is do a better job on third down. I think we had 3-of-10 last week, but a play here, [a] play there [and] we're over 50 percent on third down. That's the biggest area we're working on.”
Some players estimated that Arizona spends about half its practices on third-down situations and its production warrants the extra time. The Cardinals are ranked 31st in the league in third-down percentage, converting 31.5 percent this season.
Their 34 third-down conversions are less than four a game and the fewest in the league. Jacksonville, Arizona's opponent Sunday, has the next fewest with 36.
But there hasn't been a common answer as to how to fix the Cards' third-down woes. Some inside the Cardinals' locker room say it's in the execution or getting all 11 players on the same page or paying more attention to detail.
Whatever the reason, it hasn't improved in 10 weeks and has been the difference between the Cardinals being inside the playoff picture with seven games left compared to looking at it from the outside.
Arizona's third-down scheme is different from the rest of the offense, quarterback Carson Palmer said. It usually features four or five receivers without a running back -- of Arizona's 108 third downs this season, only 13 were runs. And the scheme gets more complex depending on how far from a first down Arizona is.
“It's a make-or-break down,” Palmer said. “You don't get another opportunity. You see different coverages, you see a lot of different pressures, you see a lot of formations defensively. It's a completely different scheme.
“You have entirely different players, you have schemes that you don't run on first or second, so it's a completely different defense and scheme in itself.”
But what third down has that first and second downs don't is the pressure to get past the sticks. That has been an issue for the Cardinals, whose rookies have come up a half-yard or yard short of a first down throughout the season. As a blocking back on third down, rookie running back Stepfan Taylor said the need to recognize coverages, blitzes and defense is also greater on third down.
Palmer said there are “a million things that can go wrong,” but he chalks up the Cardinals' inability to convert to not being able to “out-execute” opponents.
But the third-down scheme gives him the ability to control the offense from the line of scrimmage.
“Most of the time it allows the opportunity for those guys to run numerous different routes based on coverage and leaves them a little bit of freedom,” left guard Daryn Colledge said. “Carson is free to just throw the ball he wants. Whatever he sees out there he has the ability to makes shifts and motions and change guys' routes to give him the best opportunity. For us, we need to get everybody on the same page and make sure we're blocking enough and give him the opportunity to throw those balls.”
With the running game finally hitting a stride, the Cardinals need to be better on third down to be considered a serious contender for the postseason. They've rushed for 201 and 97 yards, respectively, in their last two games, and that balance has allowed the offense to do more, such as play-action and bootlegs.
While the Cardinals can't find any answers as to why third down continues plague them, they also can't find a reason why the running game woke up Willie Mays Hayes style.
“I can't put my finger on it,” center Lyle Sendlein said. “We worked the same every week. I think a lot of it has to do with the better success on first down. And if we're able to get yardage on first down then it opens up a lot on second and third down. The previous seven games we weren't getting as much success on first down.”
As another option to eat yards, the running game has alleviated pressure from the Cardinals' passing attack. After throwing the ball 40 or more times in four of Arizona's first seven games, Palmer has just 18 and 32 attempts in his last two, respectively. Both, not coincidentally, were wins.
If the Cards get better on third down, their drives are extended which means more opportunities to put points on the board. And, at the end of the day, that's every team's goal.
For Arizona, its mission is 30 points per game. That's the sign the offense is firing on all cylinders, that it's finally hitting its stride. Through nine games, however, the Cardinals have yet to hit 30, topping out at 27 the past two games. The difference between 27 and 30 can be a converted third down or two. Since he was hired in January, Arians has said he wants the Cardinals to match their point total to their time of possession.
“If you're scoring 30 points a game, you're going to be winning a lot of football games in a season,” wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “I think that's a benchmark that we all are anxious to get past and anxious to do, but we have to continue to get better in third downs.”
With the running game having turned the corner, the only hurdle between the Cardinals and them having the type of offense Arians has always envisioned is converting on third down. If they can consistently reset the down marker, Arizona has the potential to make a run in these final seven games.
If it can't and is forced to punt or settle for field goals, a .500 record will be the standard in Glendale.
“I feel like we're taking steps in the right direction to have a great second half of the season” Colledge said, "and peaking at the right time to make us competitive in December."