Cardinals’ David Johnson would love more touches — he’s not going to beg
TEMPE, Ariz. — There’s a case to be made that David Johnson, selfless as he is, could be a better teammate by demanding the football.
Running the ball effectively would open up play-action passes for quarterback Sam Bradford, helping the Arizona Cardinals stretch the ball downfield. Helping Johnson get away from stacked boxes by lining him up as a receiver would take pressure off the wide receivers, quarterback and offensive line.
By increasing his touches, he opens up options. And, at the end of the day, it gives him a better chance of busting a big play. He knows all that heading into Sunday’s home game against the Chicago Bears. So do head coach Steve Wilks and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
But through two weeks, the Cardinals have struggled to put the ball in Johnson’s hands.
He has 28 touches (22 rushes, six receptions) through two games. That 14 touches per game is closer to his rookie season average of 11.4 touches per game — when he wasn’t a starter until the final five weeks — than it is to his historic 2016 season in which he averaged 23.3 touches a game. Knowing all that, Johnson hasn’t begged, complained or even asked nicely about Arizona feeding him the rock this year.
“David is a team player,” Wilks said Friday. “Those kind of things never come from him. He’s all about the team and he’s still doing what he needs to do to prepare himself, and most importantly to make sure when we do call on him, that he can answer the bell.”
At his core, Johnson is still a running back, but the Cardinals’ large first-half deficits have taken away the team’s desire to feed him the ball in the backfield. And as multiple other offensive issues have limited Arizona, the combined effect is that the team just can’t stretch the field. Currently, Arizona ranks dead last with five play-action passes through two games, according to Pro Football Focus.
Instead, the Cardinals have seen a lot of this:
Splitting Johnson out wide could help attack matchup problems for the opponent, and the Cardinals have expressed the obvious — they need to do that.
So far, it hasn’t happened. The running back has split out on just 9 percent of his routes this year compared to 26 percent in his last full season in 2016, per NFL.com’s Graham Barfield. And when Johnson does run routes, he is hardly threatening down the field.
These #NextGenStats route charts (on targeted plays) help further explain David Johnson’s changed role, as a receiver, in 2016 vs. 2018.
There is virtually zero vertical element — especially up the boundary — in DJ’s routes this season: pic.twitter.com/GufaaXFhBL
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) September 17, 2018
Johnson doesn’t know if fewer split-outs are a bad thing. He’s OK with it but has noticed the differences compared to his role under the only other NFL head coach he’s known, Bruce Arians.
“Two different coaching styles,” Johnson said. “I’m not being split out more but I’m … doing routes out of the backfield, being utilized that way. Like I said, the offensive scheme is different.
“I think coming out of the backfield actually, I feel like I’m more likely to have a linebacker on me compared to being split out.”
Johnson believes in McCoy.
And though he’s not in his coaches’ ears in even a polite way to ask for more carries or more targets, he can’t deny it: “I love having the ball in my hands. I love being out in space and being utilized in that way. Just having the opportunity to make plays in many different ways,” Johnson said.
“For me, I feel like the coaches will definitely figure out ways to win. They’re in the NFL for a reason.”