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The Arizona Cardinals can run, and that’s a good thing

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson (31) runs past Chicago Bears safety Adrian Amos (38) for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Two games is hardly enough of a sample size to make any definitive conclusions.

Yet, in terms of the Arizona Cardinals’ running game, it may be enough to determine that things are going to be much better in 2015 than they were in 2014.

Truth be told, they couldn’t really get much worse.

Last year, the Cardinals finished with the second-fewest rushing yards in the NFL, 1,308, and held the distinction of having the lowest yards-per-carry average at 3.3.

Already this season they have run for 235 yards, with an average of 4.4 yards per tote. Those numbers place the Cardinals 14th and ninth, respectively.

Again, two games does not yet equal a trend, but if nothing else it’s a step in the right direction for a franchise that has traditionally struggled to gain much traction in the run game.

“It’s a good start, that’s basically all it is, a good start,” running back David Johnson said. “But we’ve got to continue to get better.”

Fair enough.

But the possibility that the Cardinals have improved their run game should really come as no surprise. The organization invested heavily in its offensive line over the last few seasons, with the drafting of guard Jonathan Cooper and then the free agent acquisitions of tackle Jared Veldheer and guard Mike Iupati. Arizona also fortified its stable of running backs in the offseason with the drafting of Johnson in the third round and the signing of veteran Chris Johnson during training camp.

Starting running back Andre Ellington, of course, missed last week’s win over the Chicago Bears due to a PCL injury, and Iupati has not played at all this season after injuring his meniscus during training camp. Both will return at some point — Iupati possibly Sunday — but you’d think the team will improve at running the football when it gets back to full strength.

The Cardinals already seem to be pretty good.

“I just think me being a pain in the butt to the guys about it, B.A. being a pain in the butt to the guys about it,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said of why things have improved. “We’re just doing a better job with technique. I think the running backs have a better feel of what we’re trying to do, and we’re trying to match what we put on the board to what they can do, and it’s working out so well.”

Credit for the turnaround can be directed toward many different players. Arians pointed to the team’s tight ends and receivers doing a better job blocking, which is something Goodwin pointed out, too. Johnson, the rookie running back, said the team probably has a bit more motivation to succeed there after the way things went last season.

Cooper, the starting right guard who has been integral to the team’s success on the ground, said it has been a big part of the team’s mindset all season.

“Coming in, that was the main focus,” he said. “Coach Goody, that was the first thing he said. Our emphasis was to become a running team. That’s the biggest thing, long and short, nothing else. We want to run the ball first.

“It’s definitely a mentality, and it definitely boosts your ego and confidence as an offensive line when you’re able to run the ball.”

Offensive linemen will always tell you it’s more fun to run block than pass protect because it allows them to be aggressive when engaging the defender. But more than that, the ability to consistently gain yards without having to put the ball in the air affords the team more freedom with play calling.

Suddenly play-action passes are more than a concept — they’re a reality and one that opposing defenses have to worry about. The Cardinals had success with those plays against the Bears, which is something quarterback Carson Palmer pointed out.

“So, you are most explosive on first down and doing a better job on first and second down, and that’s the running game, when run plays come in,” he said. “It just wears the defense down. It takes some of the pride out of the defensive line when they are getting pushed around a little bit and they are trying to make arm tackles on running backs and they are running through them. It helps everybody.”

Indeed, a running game helps the entire team — on both sides of the ball.

“The offense moving the ball, especially in the run game, that’s time off the clock and more rest for the defense,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “So I think defensive guys always appreciate an offense that can move the ball in the run game.

“Just to see your offense clicking, knowing that maybe if we do give up a big play on defense our offense has our back. But that’s just how we are, we’ve got to complement each other.”

The key, now, is keeping it all going. A balanced offense, after all, is a dangerous one.

“It definitely gives us the feeling that we can be a consistent group and one that’s not just one-dimensional,” Cooper said. “When we couldn’t get the pass game going, get the run game going, it’s a circle — it’s cyclical. It kind of all predicates off one another and it definitely builds our confidence when we can get four, five yards a carry and then hit the chunk passes. It’s definitely beneficial to our group.”

Some stories for pre-game reading

Carson Palmer might be playing better than any QB Bruce Arians has ever coached.

David Johnson gets grilled by Paige Dimakos in “Four Downs.” And by “grilled”, I mean “asked some questions.”

Dave Burns wrote about how the Cardinals are proving preseason predictions moot.

Is Deone Bucannon the Cards’ defensive MVP? John Gambadoro thinks so.

As Craig Grialou reports, Bruce Arians is not letting the Cardinals’ early success get to anyone’s head.

Yes, Larry Fitzgerald catches touchdown passes. He also helps clear the way for running backs.

Adrian Wilson’s legacy will be secure as he enters the Ring of Honor Sunday.

The Cardinals know they must win in the West if they are to win the West.

Hopefully it never comes to it, but if so, the Cardinals have one of the NFL’s better backup QB situations.

Miscellany

-Cardinals linebacker Alex Okafor has tallied at least one sack in each of his last five home games. In fact, nine of his 10 career sacks have come at University of Phoenix Stadium.

-A win Sunday would give the Cardinals their second consecutive 3-0 start to a season. They haven’t had back-to-back 3-0 starts since 1923 and 1924.

-The Cardinals have never gone three consecutive games without allowing a sack, but could do so if Carson Palmer stays clean Sunday.

-If the Cardinals run for 115 or more yards against the 49ers, it would be the first time since 1988 the team ran for at least 115 yards in each of the first three games of the season.

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