Dealing Cards: Andre Ellington looks fast, Tyvon Branch looks healthy

Sep 29, 2017, 7:44 PM
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)...
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. – Through the first three games of the season, the Arizona Cardinals have started three different running backs: David Johnson, Kerwynn Williams and Chris Johnson. It will be Chris Johnson who again gets the nod this week against San Francisco, but don’t be surprised if Andre Ellington plays a large role.

“We’ll see,” he said Friday. “I don’t know. I’m just here, taking it in, soaking it all in. I’m just excited to be apart of the Cardinals.”

Ellington was the more successful running back on Monday night, rushing for 22 yards on five carries while adding five catches for 59 yards; the latter is a skill-set matched only by David Johnson among those in the Cardinals’ running backs room.

“He looked fast,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said, referring to Ellington. “(He) brings back that element that David left us without, but we know that’s why Andre is on the team because he has that explosiveness. I’m sure we’ll find ways to get him the ball—I’m not going to tell you what they are. It’s good to have him on the team. He looks like old Andre. He’s healthy, knock on wood, and hopefully he can stay that way.”

Ellington has been dogged by injuries each of the past two seasons, but now “I feel good,” he said. “I worked hard to get back to this point in my game.”

Though impossible to completely replace David Johnson, a healthy Ellington is a good start.

The Cardinals have struggled thus far in the backfield, especially running the football.

“We got to have the run game. It’s huge,” Goodwin said. “I think we’re averaging 2.8 yards a rush. I stood in front of the whole team on Wednesday morning and said it’s unacceptable. It’s embarrassing. We got to do better because we know how much it means to us as far as the play-action pass and things of that nature.”

The Cardinals’ 2.8-yard average ranks second-to-last, while their 177 rushing yards as a team is the fourth-fewest in the league.

“Hopefully this game we can get it rolling because once our run game kicks up, the passing game makes it that much better,” Ellington said.

The defensive MVP

There are bigger names on the Cardinals defense, but no one has perhaps made a bigger impact than safety Tyvon Branch. His 11 tackles, including one for loss, against Dallas were a game-high, while his 23 total tackles this season are tied for the most on the team.

“It’s nice to see him healthy,” head coach Bruce Arians said, referencing Branch’s injury-plagued 2016 season. “This is the player we saw in Kansas City and Oakland. We were laughing about it this [week]. I said, ‘Isn’t it nice to be healthy?’ He’s playing really, really well right now.”

Branch typically finds himself matched up against the other team’s tight end, not easy given Branch’s six-foot, 210-pound frame. Plus, his communication on the back end has helped steady what had become a problem area a year ago.

“I think he’s having one of the best years, maybe, of anybody on defense right now. He’s tackling extremely well, is extremely reliable,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said.

A familiar face at quarterback

Late in the 2012 season, with the quarterback position in flux, the Cardinals claimed Brian Hoyer, who had just been released by Pittsburgh after spending his first three years in the league in New England.

Hoyer appeared in two games, including starting the season finale at San Francisco.

On Sunday, Hoyer and the Cardinals will reunite, only this time as opponents.

“He’s a gritty guy. I really enjoyed my time with Hoyer,” said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the lone offensive holdover from five seasons ago. “He’s kind of bounced around a lot of different places but everywhere he’s gone, he’s competed and played good football. You saw what he did in Houston. He played good in Cleveland. I have a lot of respect for Brian, and I’m glad to see him playing at a high level.”

Hoyer was still on the roster when Arians was hired as head coach, but after the additions of Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton, Hoyer was released.

“I like Brian,” Arians said. “He’s very smart, fairly accurate and didn’t have him very long, but was always impressed with the type of quarterback he is because he’s a very cerebral quarterback that can beat you with his arm and his legs.”

San Francisco to Arizona pipeline

Scanning the Cardinals roster finds six players who spent at least a portion of their NFL career with San Francisco. Among them is safety Antoine Bethea. He joined the Cardinals as a free-agent after three seasons in a 49ers uniform, including a Pro Bowl year in 2014.

“It’s a regular game, man,” he said. “At the end of the day, you got to be even-keeled. You can’t go in there with so many emotions where you kind of get bent out of shape. At this point in time of my career, buckle it up, go out there and play the game.”

The five other ex-49ers are guard Alex Boone, kicker Phil Dawson, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, guard Mike Iupati and punter Andy Lee.

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Dealing Cards: Andre Ellington looks fast, Tyvon Branch looks healthy