On Sunday night against the Arizona Cardinals the New England Patriots' pass rush played a significant part in limiting the Cardinals' big-play offense, as Carson Palmer only completed one pass beyond 20 yards. Where the Patriots' pass rush performed particularly well was on third down, holding the Cardinals to a 3-of-9 success rate through the air.
1st Quarter 13:03 - 3rd and 12: Pass completed for 11 yards
Rushers: Long - Johnson - Hightower - Sheard
On the Cardinals' first third down situation they were facing a 3rd and 12 from their own 38. The Patriots rushed four with Dont'a Hightower faking a drop before coming in on a delayed blitz. With the Cardinals' offensive line double-teaming Jabaal Sheard and Anthony Johnson, Hightower gained a clear path to the quarterback. Meanwhile on the left edge DE Chris Long faced a one-on-one against RT D.J. Humphries and cleanly beat him. Carson Palmer apparently was looking for something deep towards John Brown, but with Hightower coming in he had to get rid of the ball fast and connected with Larry Fitzgerald underneath, who got stopped short of the first down marker by Patriots CB Logan Ryan.
1st Quarter 6:22 - 3rd and 7: Pass incomplete
Rushers: Long - Collins - Johnson - Flowers - Hightower
On this occasion Matt Patricia went aggressive and chose to rush five, overwhelming the Cardinals' offensive line. The pressure came from the edges as both Hightower and Long bested the Cardinals' tackles and closed in on Carson Palmer who fired off an errant throw.
2nd Quarter 14:22 - 3rd and 5: Pass completed for 11 yards
Rushers: Johnson - Hightower - Collins - Flowers - Sheard
The Cardinals' first conversion came early in the second quarter. The Patriots again sent five rushers, with Chris Long dropping into coverage. Dont'a Hightower managed quick inside pressure as he got past the center and running back, but Palmer threw a quick strike to JJ Nelson who hauled in a leaping catch over Malcolm Butler.
2nd Quarter 12:40 - 3rd and 2: Sack
Rushers: Sheard - Johnson - Long
Two plays later the Cardinals again faced a third down, from the Patriots' 31. This time Matt Patricia only sent three rushers with both LBs and DE Trey Flowers dropping into coverage. Confused by the pre-snap disguise the Cardinals allowed both Sheard and Long to get one-on-one matchups against the tackles. While Jabaal Sheard drew a facemask penalty on RT Humphries, Long shook off LT Jared Veldheer to sack Palmer. Anthony Johnson also used the confusion to split the double-team and get a free lane to the QB.
2nd Quarter 1:39 - 3rd and 10: Pass incomplete
Rushers: Long - Collins - Sheard - Hightower
Late in the second quarter the Cardinals were facing a 3rd and 10 from their own 38 after two straight incompletions. The Patriots rushed four, although Jamie Collins only very tentatively. Again RT D.J. Humphries got abused as Chris Long quickly got past him. Perhaps slightly bothered by the incoming Long Cardinals QB Carson Palmer placed the ball slightly behind the receiver, giving CB Justin Coleman an opportunity to break up the pass.
3rd Quarter 7:14 - 3rd and 12: Pass incomplete
Rushers: Sheard - Johnson - Hightower - McClellin
The Cardinals' first third down of the second half saw the only appearance of Shea McClellin as third down rusher. Matt Patricia once again employed the strategy of sending four rushers with Hightower faking a drop before blitzing. In this case the initial coverage by the Patriots' secondary bought the pass rushers enough time to break through the offensive line with Hightower and Anthony Johnson coming free. With both of them closing in on Palmer the Cardinals' QB fired off a dangerous pass towards Larry Fitzgerald that was nearly intercepted by Logan Ryan, instead of waiting for a shot towards John Brown who managed to get ahead of Malcolm Butler at the top of the screen.
4th Quarter 10:08 - 3rd and 10: Pass completed for 11 yards
Rushers: Long - Sheard - Hightower
With the Cardinals threatening to score a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter the Patriots faced a 3rd and 10 from their own 12. Instead of aggressively playing the pass the Patriots chose to rush only three while the secondary dropped back into a zone guarding the goal line. While both Long and Hightower got a good initial jump they were in no position to affect the easy throw to a wide-open Michael Floyd.
4th Quarter 2:06 - 3rd and 6: Pass completed for 10 yards
Rushers: Sheard - Collins - Long - Hightower
As the Cardinals stepped onto the field for a potential game-winning drive the Patriots' third down pass rush began to crumble, despite rushing four. Facing a 3rd and 6 the Cardinals' offensive line gave Carson Palmer a clean pocket and he used the opportunity to find Larry Fitzgerald for a 10-yard pick up.
4th Quarter 1:10 - 3rd and 23: Pass completed for 18 yards
Rushers: Long - Collins - Sheard - Hightower
After a holding penalty and a stop in the backfield forced a 3rd and 23 from the Patriots 47 the Cardinals were out of field goal range and had to get at least 10 yards back if they wanted a somewhat realistic shot at a game-winning field goal. Facing this critical situation Matt Patricia called upon a four-man rush without much disguising that unfortunately got picked up pretty easily by the Cardinals. With a clean pocket Carson Palmer stepped up and threw a dart into the window between Devin McCourty and Cyrus Jones for an 18-yard completion to Jaron Brown setting up a 47-yard field goal that fortunately for the Patriots went wide.
Despite disappearing on the Cardinals' final drive the Patriots' third down pass rush had a dominant night as they time and again affected the timing of the Cardinals' offense while they were looking for something further down the field. This effort was carried by Dont'a Hightower continuing his strong play as pass rusher and new addition Chris Long who showed that he still has something left in the tank.