The offseason upgrades to the Arizona Cardinals’ run game didn’t lead to much optimism heading into Week 1 of the NFL season — not that they weren’t positive improvements on paper.
An injury to left guard Mike Iupati, the team’s biggest free agent signing, and suspension to right tackle Bobby Massie were assumed to put any judgment about those upgrades on hold.
But the replacements have been surprisingly effective.
At right tackle, Earl Watford has performed well in the Cardinals’ first two games. And left guard Ted Larsen has shown himself more than capable — he has experience at the position, after all.
“I think they’ve answered the bell,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said Monday on Arizona Sports 98.7 “Doug and Wolf” show. “A couple guys have stepped up. (Right guard Jonathan Cooper) coming back from injury has done a nice job, Earl has played well and I think Ted Larsen has stepped up his game. And then it’s nice, I think Mike Iupati might be ready to play this week, Bobby Massie is back from suspension. We’ll have some options and it’s nice to have that kind of depth moving forward.”
Iupati will in all likelihood reclaim his starting spot, but Massie might have a more difficult mountain to climb. Watford’s play has forced a discussion about how the team will shuffle its first unit.
“Coach (Bruce Arians), myself and (offensive coordinator) Harold Goodwin will have a discussion sometime today about that,” Keim said. “But I know this: Earl has earned the right to be on the field. The one thing I think he’s excelled at is the run game. He really does have snap and explosiveness through his hips as a player where he can create movement in the run game. He does a nice job on the second level.”
Keim will defer to Arians in making the final call, and that decision will be a firm one. There won’t be an open competition for the starting spots.
“Once we decide it’s over,” Arians said Monday on the Bickley and Marotta show. “It’s a matter of just moving on.”
The run game indeed has thrived behind the Cardinals’ offensive line. It’s helped Arizona also feels improved at tight end and running back from a year ago.
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The Cardinals are averaging 4.4 yards per carry through two games, which is tied for ninth place in the NFL.
In Arizona’s 48-23 win against the Bears on Sunday, Arians’ team rushed 28 times to 24 passing attempts. Without starter Andre Ellington, who is out with a knee injury, backup Chris Johnson carried most of the load, taking 20 carries for 72 yards.
“For a slighter-built back, not only does he have great feet and patience, but the one thing he does is he can lower and finish at the end of the run,” Keim said. “When he gets out in space, he gets skinny and does some nice things with his run style, but his ability to finish between the tackles has been a pleasant surprise.”
Johnson has also been solid in blitz-pickup, Arians said, and that’s helped the Cardinals go two games without giving up a sack.
On Sunday, rookie running back David Johnson added five carries for 42 yards — not to mention his opening kickoff return that went 108 yards for a touchdown. His role may gradually increase, but Ellington’s eventual return and Arians’ wariness about piling too much on the rookie could play a factor.
But all-in-all, the results heading into Week 3 are promising, especially for an offense that should only add to its depth along the line that’s already over-performing the outside expectations.
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