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Cardinals running backs fighting for breakout moment in offense

Cardinals running backs David Johnson, left, and Chase Edmonds, right. (Tyler Drake/Arizona Sports)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Through two games, the Arizona Cardinals have gone through the air early and often.

Yes, it’s been slow to start on both occasions, but rookie quarterback Kyler Murray eventually found his stride, on his way to back-to-back 300-yard performances.

The early returns on the signal caller have been encouraging.

But most believe the running game is lacking, nonexistent at times when called upon.

The Cardinals have ran the ball 34 times for 132 yards and a score through two games, averaging 66.0 yards per game and 3.9 per attempt. In head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, the team has run a total of 136 offensive plays for 789 yards, 394.5 yards per game.

There’s clearly a large gap in plays ran, and playing behind in games has only made it more lopsided, making it tougher on running backs to get that rhythm.

“Really the biggest thing is just getting tackled and getting in the groove of that,” running back David Johnson said after practice Thursday. “And with the situation, we’re always have to try to get points on the board quick and so it’s been tough the last couple of weeks.”

While the running back hasn’t put up elite numbers through two games, he has improved from his 2018 totals.

Through the first two contests last season, Johnson rushed 22 times for 85 yards and a score, while catching six balls for 33 yards in a lackluster offense. This year, he’s up to 96 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, adding seven receptions for 55 yards and a score.

The offense is noticeably more effective than last year’s when clicking, leaving the door open for career days.

“I’m always going to have that mentality that it’s going to be a breakout game,” Johnson said. “I mean I had a chance, I should have did it the last two weeks and like I said I have to capitalize on the opportunities I get.”

For running back Chase Edmonds, who played in a similar offense at Fordham, he’s taking a do-more-with-less approach in the pass-heavy offense.

“The plays are the plays and I like how Kliff is calling the game. I know some people talk about how we need to run the ball more but the he passes right now, the runs are going to be open,” Edmonds said. “When you start exploiting the defense and they’re getting tired, that’s where gashes come.

“So to me, it’s not about the amount of carries we’re having, it’s just the yards per carry. That’s why we’ve got to do a good job executing and reading blocks as running backs and continue to build on it.”

The Carolina Panthers provide an excellent chance for the rushing attack to hit the ground running.

In Week 1, Carolina watched as running backs Todd Gurley II and Malcolm Brown combined for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Peyton Barber, who was outproduced by backup Ronald Jones just a week prior, played a crucial part in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Week 2 win, rushing 23 times for 82 yards and a score.

The common denominator in the performances? The touchdowns all came from inside the red zone, something the Cardinals have lacked in 2019.

Especially last week, as the team settled for field goals instead of touchdowns on numerous occasions, resulting in the one-score 23-17 loss.

As an offense, the team has converted just two of its eight red-zone opportunities this season.

“I really liked the tempo last week, and that’s a big emphasis in this offense as it is,” Edmonds said. “Obviously we’ve got to correct just the red zone [offense]. I feel like we score just one touchdown, one extra touchdown in the red zone it’s a complete different game, we help our defense out a lot more. We know that as an offense, so that’s what we’re going in for.”

The running backs know they have the talent to contribute in Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense — in the red zone and anywhere else on the gridiron. With a team needing spark early on in games, it’s on them to rise to the occasion.

“Be playmakers, that’s what we want to be in that running-back room,” Edmonds said of his expectations. “Be playmakers on the field, be someone who Kyler can dump it out to and turn a five-yard completion into a 10-, 12-yard completion or whatever the case may be. Hold onto the football as always, no turnovers, and just continue to do our job to help Kyler in [pass protection].”

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