Cardinals taking flight on third down
The Arizona Cardinals’ dalliance with third down has been more than a passing fancy.
This season, the Cardinals are all in with their fancy passing on the down that can end or extend drives.
The Cardinals, whom the Packers will play Sunday, boast one of the highest-rated passing attacks in the NFL. On third down, they are in a class by themselves.
Three years ago, Arizona’s aerial game scared no one. Its passer rating of 63.1 — assembled by the likes of John Skelton, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer in 2012 — was the lowest in the league.
Skelton, Kolb and Hoyer did not return the next season. Neither did coach Ken Whisenhunt, who was fired after compiling a record of 49-53 in seven seasons.
Bruce Arians, an offensive-minded coach and former college quarterback (Virginia Tech), was hired in January 2013. That April, Arians obtained veteran quarterback Carson Palmer in a trade.
In the time since, the team has taken flight. Its passer rating this season (105.9) is second only to the 111.1 of Seattle.
Palmer and a trio of gifted receivers make it go. Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd have combined for more receiving yards (2,786) this season than any trio short of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton (2,996).
Fitzgerald, 32, has been making the spectacular look routine for 12 seasons. He caught his 1,000th regular-season pass against the Rams on Dec. 6 and became the youngest player to reach that milestone.
Fitzgerald has caught passes from 16 different quarterbacks in his career. He has been selected to eight Pro Bowls.
He’s Arizona’s top receiver with 99 catches. His career best is 103 catches in 2005.
Brown and Floyd often operate farther downfield. The two are among 18 players in the NFL since 2012 that have caught at least 100 passes while averaging better than 15 yards a catch.
Floyd, 26, was selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the 2012 draft. Brown, 25, was a third-round pick in 2014.
Fitzgerald, Floyd and Brown have combined for more than 130 yards receiving 14 times this season. They surpassed 200 yards six times with a season high of 339 yards coming in a 25-13 loss to the Steelers in Week 6.
And then there’s Palmer. A Heisman Trophy winner and the first pick in the 2003 draft, the USC standout was labeled by some as a can’t-miss-prospect coming out of college.
Palmer, 35, is in the fourth quarter of his career. Unable to win consistently in Cincinnati (46-51) or Oakland (8-16), he has experienced a renaissance in Arizona (28-8).
His passer rating (106.7) this season is the highest of his career. His average gain per attempt (8.8) and touchdown percentage (6.6) are also personal bests.
Palmer, Fitzgerald, Brown and Floyd excel on third down. The Cardinals’ passer rating on that down (120.2) is nearly five points better than the second-place Seahawks (115.5).
Arizona averages more yards per completion on third down (14.5) than it does on the other downs combined (13.4). Its touchdown percentage (9.3 versus 5.5) is noticeably better as well.
The Cardinals’ aerial success is one reason why they lead the NFL in third down conversion percentage at 47.2 percent.
Palmer tends to look to Floyd (28 targets on third down), Fitzgerald (26) and Brown (22) when seeking a fresh set of downs. Floyd leads the trio with 19 catches for 282 yards and four touchdowns with Brown (16-280-2) and Fitzgerald (14-154-2) next in line.
Third down doesn’t appear to faze Palmer or the Cardinals. According to Stats LLC, Palmer leads the league in percentage of third-down passes (52.8) that result in first downs
The Cardinals have generated 100 or more passing yards on third down four times this season and are 4-0 in those games. Their biggest outlay was 179 yards on 8-of-14 passing in a 34-20 win at Cleveland on Nov. 1.
Arizona’s third-down passer rating is the highest since the Saints posted a mark of 126.4 on the way to a 13-3 season in 2011. The Colts of 2006 were the last team to lead the NFL in third-down passer rating (119.1) and win a Super Bowl.
Overall: Green Bay leads 44-22-4.
At University of Phoenix Stadium: Packers lead 1-0.
Packers: Aaron Rodgers (80-37 overall; 2-0 vs. Arizona)
Cardinals: Carson Palmer (82-75; 2-1 vs. Green Bay)
Taking Flight on Third Down
Through Week 15, teams that had a third-down passer rating of 100 or better:
Rate Team Record
120.2 Cardinals 12-2
115.5 Seahawks 9-5
114.3 Browns 3-11
110.3 Patriots 12-2
103.3 Panthers 14-0
100.7 Vikings 9-5
Eric Goska is a Packers historian. Email him at email@example.com.