Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals faced the Green Bay Packers last Saturday in what many, including myself, described as the most entertaining game all season. In this game, Larry Fitzgerald was targeted 13 times* by Carson Palmer. On those 13 targets, he recorded 8 receptions for 176 yards and a touchdown. This game went to overtime due to a last second hail mary touchdown pass by Aaron Rodgers to wide reciever Jeff Janis. Ultimately the Cardinals were able to outlast the Packers and advance to the NFC Divisional round. In this breakdown, we will take a closer look at Fitzgerald’s performance and the types of plays that were run to get him open in Bruce Arians’ offense.
*Note: Fitzgerald’s official box score will show 12 targets, but he was actually targeted 14 times. One of those targets was caught by him, but since a defensive penalty was called that play is not recorded in the official stats. The other target was clearly intended for Fitzgerald, but you will see in Play 3 (below) that it was caught by another receiver and therefore Fitzgerald is not accredited the target. For the purposes of this article, the “No Play” target due to the penalty will not be factored into this breakdown, but the deflection will be included.
Before we look at the tape, let’s take a look at when Fitzgerald was targeted, where he was targeted, and what route he ran versus the Packers.
|Overtime||3||2||80 + TD|
|Total||13||8||176 + TD|
Passes are measured from the line of scrimmage to the receiver. Short passes are less than 6 yards, intermediate passes are between 6 and 15 yards, while deep passes are passes greater than 15 yards deep. First number represents the number of completions at this location, while the second represents the total targets.
|Deep Left||Deep Middle||Deep Right|
|Intermediate Left||Intermediate Middle||Intermediate Right|
|Short Left||Short Middle||Short Right|
Finally, here are all the routes Fitzgerald ran while being targeted by Palmer versus the Packers.
Let’s dive into the film! This first play we’ll look at happened in the 3rd quarter:
Situation: 2nd and 6 at ARI 20
Description: (9:38 – 3rd) C.Palmer pass deep right to L.Fitzgerald pushed ob at GB 48 for 32 yards (D.Randall)
- The Cardinals line up in singleback slot left with RB#31 David Johnson in the backfield.
- Fitzgerald stands alone wide right and runs a go-route against #23 Randall.
- The Packers are in Cover 1 man rushing five pass rushers as #42 Burnett blitzes outside the right tackle.
- FS#21 Clinton-Dix is the single-high safety, while the rest of the defenders are playing man-to-man coverage.
- Fitzgerald releases towards the sideline before working his way up the field. Randall actually has him covered pretty well, but the ball placement is phenomenal by Palmer.
- Fitzgerald is able to pull it in for a 32 yard gain on 2nd down.
- Simply put, this was a perfect placement by Carson Palmer who is having a career year in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and in touchdown to interception ratio.
Palmer and Fitzgerald were not always in sync. This was the case on multiple downfield throws including the following play that happened in the 4th quarter.
Situation: 2nd and 10 at GB 19
Description: (4:40 – 4th) (Shotgun) C.Palmer pass incomplete deep right to L.Fitzgerald
- The Cardinals are in shotgun twins stack left with Johnson in the backfield.
- Like last play, Fitzgerald is alone wide on the right side of the formation.
- Pre-snap Palmer motions him tighter to the formation. #23 Randall follows him but still plays off the line of scrimmage.
- The Packers drop into a Cover 4 look with four deep defenders and three underneath zone defenders.
- Fitzgerald runs an out-route to the first down marker and is open if Palmer looks his direction. However, the playside route-combination is a three-level read which takes his attention first.
- Palmer does not see anybody open before he feels the pressure. He starts scrambling outside the pocket to his right.
- Fitzgerald sees his quarterback needs help so he sprints up the field getting behind #23 Randall into the backright of the endzone.
- Palmer puts the ball just too high on what would have been an excellent broken play touchdown.
The following play happened two plays later on the same redzone attempt as Play 2.
Situation: 1st and Goal at GB 9
Description: (3:44 – 4th) Michael Floyd Pass From Carson Palmer for 9 Yrds C.Catanzaro extra point is GOOD, Center-M.Leach, Holder-D.Butler.
- The Cardinals are in shotgun trips right and Fitzgerald is the middle receiver.
- The Cardinals clearly run a pick play with WR#12 Brown pushing his defender back to create room for Fitzgerald.
- Randall actually has excellent coverage, but Palmer forces it to him.
- Palmer’s terrible decision gets rewarded as the ball deflects high into the air by Randall landing in #15 Michael Floyd’s hands for his second touchdown on the day.
- This TD gave the Cardinals a 17-13 lead over the Packers with only 3:44 left in the game.
Overtime Targets: All three plays went to Fitzgerald
Three plays is all it took for the Cardinals to beat the Packers in overtime. All three plays shared one common element: Larry Fitzgerald.
In the first play, Fitzgerald runs a crossing-route over the middle of the field from the right side of the formation. The pressure by #52 Clay Matthews forces Palmer to scramble out of the right side of the pocket. Palmer throws it completely across the field to a wide-open Fitzgerald who stands by the 32 yard line. Fitzgerald catches the ball and sprints up the sideline before cutting back across the middle of the field. Normally, this is a huge “no-no” for a quarterback. However, since the Packers leave the sideline open with two underneath linebacker zones, Fitzgerald is left wide open.
Why is he so wide-open? There are two theories: (1) #23 Randall plays zone instead of man-to-man coverage on his wide receiver. If the defensive call was a Cover 1 Man with a single-high safety, then Randall should have followed Fitzgerald instead of dropping deep into his zone. (2) Randall plays it correctly and Peppers just abandons his zone to attack Palmer, which frees Fitzgerald. One of them made a mistake as McCarthy said in his post-game presser:
“We had a broken coverage there,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after the game, not specifying who made the mistake.
The final argument was that everyone actually did their job, but since Palmer buys time and Peppers instinctively vacates his zone since Fitzgerald is clearly behind him is what creates the opening. So this would classify as a schematic Cover 3 pattern-match breakdown as opposed to a player miscommunication breakdown.
What’s the diference between 30 and 75 yards? #37 Sam Shields and #21 Clinton-Dix both take an aggressive angle towards the sideline, which allows the cutback lane for Fitzgerald. Additionally, coming from behind, #52 Clay Matthews also attacks Fitzgerald at the sideline from behind where he should have widened into the middle of the field just in-case. Your goal as a defense after a large gain is to contain the player and not allow it to get any worse. All three defenders failed at that in this particular play.
The next play was a fade route to Fitzgerald, but it was well-guarded by the defense and overthrown by Palmer. And the last play was a designed shovel pass to him from the backfield that was perfectly blocked after #12 John Brown motions across the formation pre-snap.
The only mistake Fitzgerald made all game was the illegal blindside block that he threw in the 3rd quarter on the end-around to WR#12 John Brown. According to the NFL Rule Book, this is illegal because it puts the offensive player in a defenseless posture:
A player who receives a “blindside” block when the path of the offensive blocker is toward or parallel to his own end line, and he approaches the opponent from behind or from the side [makes him defenseless].
Overall, Fitzgerald delivered another incredible playoff performance to help the Cardinals make it to the NFC Divisional Round of the playoffs. In his career, he now has 912 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight post-season games according to ProFootballReference. The Cardinals now face the #1 seeded NFC team in the Carolina Panthers this Sunday who just beat the NFC West Seattle Seahawks. This upcoming game should showcase an excellent match-up between Panthers’ star cornerback Josh Norman and Larry Fitzgerald.
Follow Samuel Gold on Twitter: @SamuelRGold.