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David Johnson welcomes pressure of carrying Cardinals offense

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson, left, runs in front of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster (56) during the second half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

TEMPE, Ariz. — This strategy might sound familiar. For the Arizona Cardinals to win, they need more from their offense. And for the offense to really get going, they need more from David Johnson.

It sounds simple, but it hasn’t played out that way. After putting up 2,118 yards from scrimmage in 2016, Johnson missed virtually all of the 2017 campaign. Everyone expected a bounce back this year, but he just hasn’t been able to find any sort of rhythm in Mike McCoy’s offense. Yes, he has six of Arizona’s nine offensive touchdowns in 2018, but his season high for rushing yards in a game is 71, against Seattle in Week Four.

To put that in perspective, Johnson averaged 77.4 rushing yards per game in 2016. And that’s when he was contributing a lot more as a receiver, on top of the ground game.

So yes, they need to get him going. And if there’s ever a time to do it, this week’s game against Denver might be the best opportunity. The Broncos actually give up more yards per game on the ground than the Cardinals do (161.3 to 151.2), and their defense isn’t being left out on the field nearly as much as Arizona’s is.

It gets worse for Denver. Todd Gurley just torched the Broncos for 208 rushing yards. And before you just dismiss that as Gurley reminding everyone of his MVP candidacy, Isaiah Crowell of the Jets ran for 219 the week before. Yes, that Isaiah Crowell. You know, the one who has 211 total rushing yards in New York’s other five games combined.

“My biggest thing when I see that, it’s probably a little bit more pressure,” Johnson acknowledged. “Because of that reason. So me, I have to really just focus in on every little thing, all the details, and let the yards come as they come.”

Offensive lineman Justin Pugh downplayed the idea that the clear way to beating this Denver team on Thursday night is to run wild though.

“There’s no pressure,” he said. “We’ve got to go out there and we’ve got to do our job. I think there’s more pressure to win a game. I don’t care how we win the game. I’d rather get the win and have four yards rushing and throw for a bunch of yards and just get the win. There’s no beautiful way to get 200 yards – like ‘oh yeah we rushed for 250 but we lost’ – I don’t care about that. I want to get a win, any means necessary.”

That feeling’s pretty prevalent around the Cardinals’ locker room. And it’s likely the same for most Arizona fans. But it doesn’t change the fact that Johnson is the team’s most dynamic offensive weapon – two years ago, he looked like the most dynamic offensive weapon in football – so there’s been a concerted effort to get him the ball more lately.

“That’s a big thing,” Johnson explained. “Especially me. I feel like I need to get into a rhythm. I feel like I get better as I get more carries, as I get more touches, as the game goes along, seeing what the defense is giving me. And I feel like when we have momentum, not just me, but everybody – the blockers, the O-line, the tight ends, the receivers – all thrive off that.”

Simply converting third downs and sustaining drives as an offense would go a long way to helping get Johnson more touches. But his carries are up noticeably over the last three games anyway – 19.3 per contest, as opposed to 11.3 over the first three weeks – yet the yards still haven’t been there. He’s averaging 3.2 yards per carry for the season, compared to the 4.2 he was putting up in 2017 and the 4.6 he was delivering in his rookie year.

Of course, there’s been a growing concern that the reason Johnson hasn’t been as effective is because the offense has become too predictable. And it’s true that an overwhelming number of the running plays have gone up the middle.

In fact, according to Sharp Football Stats, 55 of the 92 handoffs to Johnson have gone right up the middle. Seven have gone to the right side of the line, 18 have gone to the left and the remaining 12 have bounced outside. Even if those numbers are slightly off, it’s undeniable that the majority of the running plays are going straight ahead.

Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy pointed out that some of those plays may not have necessarily been designed to go up the middle though. They may have just ended up there, because a block was missed or someone made the wrong read or a play was simply broken. There is an opposing defense on the field too, after all. Still, that’s a high percentage of runs to seemingly the same area. And it’s tough to argue that the play calls are going entirely based on matchups when the stats show so much consistency, spread out against six different opponents.

There’s one troubling stat that can’t just be pinned on play selection though. Johnson somehow hasn’t put together a 100-yard performance on the ground since Nov. 20, 2016. That’s nearly two full years. Sure, he missed essentially all of the 2017 campaign with a wrist injury, so that number is a little inflated. But still, that’s 13 consecutive games where one of the best running backs in all of football hasn’t eclipsed the century mark.

“I think it’s the same,” head coach Steve Wilks pointed out, when asked about Johnson’s confidence. “I don’t think he’s fallen off at all. I think his attention to detail is there. He’s focused. I know he talked about a few things last week, a few weeks ago, about his mental [errors], but everything that he’s doing in practice is showing me that he’s ready to play a good football game.”

That’s the key. Because it doesn’t matter how the plays are designed if Johnson isn’t running with the same authority that we’re used to seeing from him. But that seems unlikely, given the fact that he’s still only 26, he was dominant the last time he played a full season and the only silver lining to what happened last year is that he’s more rested than many of his counterparts around the league now.

It’s really hard to believe that he would somehow just suddenly drop off. And it’s not like his injury from last season is the kind of injury that should hamper him now, or hold him back mentally. For his part, he’s still saying all the right things. And he wants to be the one who triggers a turnaround for the entire offense.

“Yes I definitely do,” Johnson said. “I want to be the guy that everyone leans on, that everyone looks at to get momentum going for the offense. That everyone looks to to get a play, an explosive play, so we can get some momentum going, get everyone motivated and get some excitement throughout the offense.”

Thursday might be the best time to do it.

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