GLENDALE Ariz. — Ask David Johnson what he wants to improve upon as an Arizona Cardinals running back and the answer is always the same: Everything.
Ask again, this time for a specific area of his game, and chances are he’ll mention pass protection, something he was not asked to do much of, if at all, while at Northern Iowa.
Coming into the NFL, however, pass protection is a must.
Last season as a rookie, Johnson worked tirelessly at protecting the quarterback, especially blitz pickup against oncoming linebackers. The improvement was noticeable, and it’s only gotten better.
For one, Johnson is not your typical running back. He’s big and plays physical. He’s not afraid of a little contact.
For example, look no further than the Cardinals’ fifth offensive play of the preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders. It was a second-down pass play with Carson Palmer throwing to an open Michael Floyd in the middle of the field for a gain of 30 yards to the Raiders’ 31.
It’s what didn’t show up in the stat sheet later, though, and what may have gone unnoticed that really allowed the play to develop: Johnson moving to his right to block linebacker Khalil Mack, giving Palmer the time necessary to climb up into the pocket and find Floyd.
“I just try to help out wherever I could. He came though,” Johnson said, referring to one of the game’s elite pass rushers. “Darren (Fells) had a good block on him. I just wanted to help out.”
The 6-foot-1, 224-pound Johnson had stopped — along with Fells — the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Mack, who earned first-team All-Pro honors after recording 15 sacks in 2015.
Johnson’s actions may have eluded the viewer’s attention, but it certainly didn’t escape his teammates.
“He’s a phenomenal blocker and had some good pickups in the pass protection stuff,” Palmer said after the game.
Though Johnson didn’t want to take credit for the long completion — he was, in his words, only doing his job –the block did illustrate just how far he’s come in improving his pass protection skills.
“Tremendously,” Johnson said. “I’ve noticed a lot just from technique-wise it’s so much different. I still feel like sometimes I do go back on the old ways, where I kind of lunge or I have bad technique, but, all in all, I feel like I’m getting a lot better.”
Blocking linebackers and blitzing cornerbacks or safeties never lands in the stats columns for running backs. Attempts, yards gained and touchdowns do; by the way, Johnson carried the ball three times for 31 yards playing only six snaps against the Raiders.
Still, Johnson is putting pass protection in his own column. It will once again be a focal point of his when he and the Cardinals arrive in San Diego for a pair of joint practices ahead of their preseason game on Friday.
“I really do want to work on pass protection, first off going against a different team,” he said. “I kind of start to get used to who’s coming in to blitz (from our team in practice) and how they disguise, like Tony Jefferson when he’s coming, but when we’re going against a different team they might disguise it different, so that would be a good thing to see a different look.”