SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Conventional wisdom said the Cardinals’ gameplan against the 49ers would be to run, run and run some more.
San Francisco had the NFL’s worst rushing defense and the Cardinals, meanwhile, were without starting QB Carson Palmer but had electric second-year back David Johnson.
Johnson finished Arizona’s 33-21 win with 157 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries and another 28 yards on three receptions. His 30 touches easily led the team.
“I was hoping to get Andre (Ellington) some (touches), but he was hot, you know,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said of Johnson.
Arians said Johnson only tapped out once, and at that point, Ellington took over and also did a good job.
“I like that one-two punch,” he said.
Ellington picked up 19 yards on six carries, but it was easily Johnson who stole the show and carried the Cardinals on this night.
Johnson’s 157 rushing yards were the most for any NFL player this season, and he earned them with his unique blend of power, speed, quickness and agility.
“I feel unstoppable, basically,” Johnson said of the kind of zone he was in. “Especially with the help of the guys blocking, the tight ends, the receivers and obviously the O-line. It helps me get going, it helps me get into the flow of being able to break some tackles, being able to get the yards that we need.”
Johnson’s performance was one the Cardinals needed and his teammates marveled at.
“Dave, he is the catalyst — he makes it go offensively,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “When he starts getting his groove, teams start coming down to the box. It gives us opportunities to make some plays behind the defense in the passing game.
“Some of the cuts and some of the things he’s able to do on the field, you just don’t see that too often. He’s truly a special player and person, for that matter.”
Part of the fun for the Cardinals in this one, besides winning, of course, was how they went about it offensively. The Cardinals gained more yards on the ground than through the air, with Johnson, Ellington and Stepfan Taylor combining for 35 rushing attempts.
Drew Stanton only threw 28 passes and was sacked once.
“I’m continually growing and getting more comfortable, especially with some of the vets on our team,” Johnson said of being asked to essentially carry the team in a game. “Larry, every time I run the ball, he’s jumping on my back and getting excited. That pumps me up.
“Just to see Jermaine’s (Gresham) passion on the field, the way he gets after guys. He’s always talking and telling us to run it on his side. He’s demanding us run towards him. That definitely pumps me up and keeps me going.”
Stanton said being able to just hand the ball to Johnson and watch him go was a blessing, and noted how center A.Q. Shipley did a great job of identifying fronts and making sure the line was matching up well with the 49ers, especially after losing guards Evan Mathis and Mike Iupati to injury. He also called Johnson “a luxury to have.”
The 49ers knew the Cardinals wanted to run the ball, yet were powerless to stop him.
“That’s what we expected of him the whole time, you know,” Arians said. “He doesn’t have to do it all, just take what’s there. He left a few yards out there, but you know, big third-down catch.”
Arians then, as has been his custom this season, made sure to point out that Johnson was not perfect.
“Everything he’s capable of, just — he did put the ball on the ground one time and we hurried up on a 3rd-and-6 so that they couldn’t review it. And it cost us, we had to go for a field goal, but we would have probably lost it on a challenge.”
So there’s that. If nothing else, the ability to just pound the football over and over and over again is something that gets the whole team fired up.
“Yes, yes,” left tackle Jared Veldheer said of enjoying a run-based offense. “It was awesome. Having David be able to turn it on and play that kind of game is great.”
Even Fitzgerald, who as a receiver probably wants the ball to come his way more than it does, summed up Johnson and his night nicely.
“Just, looking in the offensive linemen’s eyes and seeing Jermaine (Gresham) getting after it,” he said. “When they know you’re running the football and they’re having trouble stopping it, that’s just physical domination at its best, and it’s a great feeling.
“Especially when you’ve got a back that you know you’ve just got to cover your guy up and he can get the job done. It’s fun blocking for a guy like that.”
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