RB David Johnson is still the foundation of the Cardinals’ offense
TEMPE, Ariz. — Most of David Johnson’s fanbase can be broken into two groups:
There are the Arizona Cardinals fans, who know their team needs the 26-year old running back to have a big year for the club to enjoy any significant level of success.
And then there are the fantasy football owners, who likely constructed their entire roster around Johnson as their top pick.
Johnson is very aware of both groups. And there is certainly some overlap between the two. But the one thing both sides share is a set of extremely high expectations for the man who amassed 2,118 yards from scrimmage the last time he played a full NFL season.
Nearly a third of the way into the 2018 campaign, however, Johnson is on pace for just 1,158 total yards – and only 774 on the ground. So what exactly is going on?
“Sometimes the chips just fall the way they do because the defense is trying to take something away,” Josh Rosen pointed out. “But definitely trying to get our best players involved in any way we can.”
It makes sense that opposing defenses would be focused on Johnson. After all, the Cardinals are starting a rookie at quarterback now, and were starting a seemingly timid Sam Bradford behind a shaky offensive line prior to that. Why not make those guys try to beat you, instead of one of the league’s most dynamic running backs? Plus, it’s not like the receiving corps is all that established behind Larry Fitzgerald. Christian Kirk is improving, but he’s played five NFL games. It’s a work in progress.
That said, Johnson hasn’t lost his penchant for getting into the end zone. Even though his yards are down significantly, he still has five touchdowns in five games. And that fits in line perfectly with his career average, where he now has 38 touchdowns in 38 games.
That’s a pretty great pace – crossing the goal line with the ball every single game. And it’s actually even more impressive when you consider Johnson’s five scores in 2018 account for 63 percent of the Arizona offense. Impressive for Johnson, that is. Not necessarily the Cards’ offense.
In fact, that’s the highest percentage of a team’s offense accounted for by any one NFL player this season – quarterbacks excluded. Sure, Todd Gurley has found the end zone a remarkable nine times already, but he also lines up for a Los Angeles team that has 19 offensive scores. That’s a 47 percent clip. Ezekiel Elliott is in that range as well, with his three touchdowns accounting for 43 percent of the Cowboys’ seven.
Neither of those numbers is anywhere near 63 percent though. That’s not to say Gurley is less important than Johnson by any means — the Rams RB is probably the leading candidate for NFL MVP right now. But it does illustrate just how integral Johnson still is to what Arizona is trying to do on offense, even if it doesn’t always feel like he’s the focal point many fans believe he should be.
“Fixing my mistakes,” Johnson said, when explaining how he can get the ball more. “Fixing my mistakes and continue to give them confidence in the run game with what I’m doing. Even if there might not be a hole there, make a hole. And continue pounding the ball.”
As it stands, Johnson is averaging 17.8 touches per game. That’s up over the first few weeks, when he was closer to 14, but it puts him on pace for roughly 285 this season — 88 less than the 373 touches he totaled in 2016.
Fans, media members and even former players and coaches have debated all season whether or not Johnson is actually getting the ball enough. But the quickest cure is for the entire offense to start moving the ball more effectively. And to convert more third downs so they can stay on the field.
“Oh, we’re close,” Johnson said. “Definitely close. Like coach always tells us, there’s always one person — might be me, one person, might be someone else. It’s not like it’s a whole offense thing, it’s usually just one person. And that one person makes a big impact.”
For his part, Rosen echoed that same theory that the Cardinals might not be as far away from clicking on offense as it seems on paper right now.
“I think everyone’s playing pretty well it’s just, we have just sort of one-off mental mistakes everywhere,” he noted. “Like me, linemen, receivers, running backs. Some people make one mistake, but when you have eight or nine people making one mistake on separate plays, you almost just want to be like, ‘Alright guys, let’s all screw up this first play together and then play great from then on.’ But it’s just about locking in and staying focused. We’ve all got things to get better on.”
This would be a good week to pull it all together. Arizona is playing an early game for the first time all season, and they’re facing the desperate Vikings, who are just 2-2-1, despite having legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. They made it to the NFC Championship game a mere nine months ago and have the sort of balanced offense that tends to put up points.
Even after picking up the pace a little the last couple weeks, Arizona is still averaging only 13 points per game. That probably won’t cut it in Minnesota, so they’re going to have to find a way to get something going in a hurry.
And that likely starts with Johnson.