Cardinals running game blossoms with three big-play backs
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — For as long as most of their fans can remember, the Arizona Cardinals have had a hard time running the ball. So far this year, that’s not been the case.
Chris Johnson, David Johnson and Andre Ellington have led the Cardinals to 467 yards rushing, second only to Seattle in the NFL. Arizona leads the league at 5 yards per carry. Last season, the Cardinals ranked dead last at 3.3 yards per attempt.
All three backs are dynamic and can break a big play.
"You really have got to worry about those guys making one guy miss breaking an arm tackle and then hitting the sidelines and outrunning you," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "It’s really opened up our offense."
All three are healthy and working out this week in the crisp West Virginia air as the Cardinals prepare for Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh. The team stayed in the East after its rout of Detroit last week to avoid two lengthy plane trips.
The catalyst of the reborn running game is Chris Johnson, signed late in training camp when Ellington and David Johnson were nursing hamstring injuries.
Once one of the most prolific backs in the league for Tennessee early in his career, Chris Johnson was shot in the shoulder during the offseason after being released by the New York Jets. He believes the shooting scared off prospective teams until Arizona came calling.
The Cardinals thought his slashing style was a perfect fit.
"It was huge," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said, "just because bringing him in makes everybody a little bit better because everybody’s got to step up to the plate just to get some playing time. Obviously he’s had to work himself into shape but he’s in a groove right now. I said last week he’s hot and hopefully he stays hot and we continue blocking."
It’s turned out better than anyone could have expected.
Just past his 30th birthday, Chris Johnson again is among the league’s elite statistically. He is tied for second with Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman and Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin with 405 yards rushing. Only Matt Forte of Chicago has more at 438.
Chris Johnson is averaging 5.1 yards per carry. So is David Johnson, the rookie third-round draft pick from Iowa, who has rushed for three touchdowns, caught a pair of touchdown passes and returned a kickoff 108 yards per score. He is tied with Larry Fitzgerald for most TDs on the team with six.
Ellington, slowed by injuries most of his career, sprained a knee in the opener and didn’t play again until last Sunday in Detroit. Late in that game, he raced 63 yards for a score. Ellington and Chris Johnson have the same running style. David Johnson has more power but is fast, too.
"It’s a very nice situation," coach Bruce Arians said.
General manager Steve Keim made improving the offensive line a priority this season. Left guard Mike Iupati, considered one of the best run blockers in the game, was Arizona’s big free-agent signing. But he had surgery in training camp for a torn meniscus and didn’t play until week three. Right tackle Bobby Massie has settled in at his old spot of right tackle after being suspended for three games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Like all offensive linemen, they love to block for the run, especially when they see someone break it for a long gain.
"The guys are doing a good job," Goodwin said. "As an offensive lineman, if you see Chris, or `Dre or D.J. break a run, it gives you a little extra motivation. We’re getting so many chunk runs right now that it makes it so much easier. It gives everybody a little extra boost of enthusiasm to block."
The Cardinals rushed for 187 yards last week against Detroit in just 25 attempts and thought they should have had more. Chris Johnson gained 103 yards in 11 carries, his second 100-yard performance in three games.
"Of course, it makes you feel good," he said, "but it’s still early. We’ve got to look at the big picture. We’ve only played five games. We’ve got to keep it going, got to be consistent."
Notes: Iupati (back) and OLB LaMarr Woodley (chest) did not practice Thursday. S Tyrann Mathieu (heel), WR John Brown (hamstring), CB Justin Bethel (foot) and TE Darren Fells (hip) were listed as limited.