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Carson Palmer: Cardinals RB David Johnson plays best when in space

Running back David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals runs with the ball between Tre Boston #33 and Donte Jackson #26 of the Carolina Panthers during the first half of the NFL football game at State Farm Stadium on September 22, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

If one was to rank the biggest issues facing the 0-2-1 Arizona Cardinals through three weeks of the 2019 season, there would probably be more pressing matters than running back David Johnson.

Still, he’s on pace to register 1,152 yards from scrimmage this season, which is a far cry from the 2,118 yards he had in 2016 as he excelled both in run plays and pass plays. Two head coaches and a carousel of offensive coordinators later, there’s still the burning question: How do the Cardinals get Johnson back to elite performance?

Johnson’s former quarterback, Carson Palmer, told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station that the issue might be found in the way Johnson is utilized, and not necessarily a matter of whether he’s still the same explosive back. The discussion came after a Cardinals loss to the Panthers on Sunday in which Johnson had 11 carries for 37 yards, and his longest run was 15 yards. Quarterback Kyler Murray ran for nearly twice that many yards.

Johnson has averaged 4.4 yards per touch this season, getting 83 receiving yards and 133 rushing yards for 216 total.

“Dave’s a great back, but Dave is built to be in space,” Palmer said. “The one thing I’d like to see him more is more opportunities to catch the ball in space, like his touchdown catch. You give him a little bit of wiggle room, nobody on the planet wants to see him in a one-on-one situation where they have to make a tackle like that. And that’s the one thing we haven’t seen a ton of, is just Dave out in space.

“He is a good downhill runner, he’s a good bounce runner, he’s a good zone scheme runner. But where Dave is one of the most elite backs that I’ve seen in my time is when you have him out in space getting him on little screens. You remember him his first couple years, he was returning kickoffs for touchdowns when he had space against Chicago. He caught that game-winner at home on the season-opener against the Saints, where he just had space. He just was running a simple drag route that, you know, I threw the ball six yards and he ran 60.”

Those kinds of designs, Palmer said, were part of the style of former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. But now under Kliff Kingsbury, perhaps the system isn’t designed for Johnson to be utilized in space that same way.

So should Kingsbury change things up?

“That’s the catch-22,” he said. “There’s so many guys you’re trying to fit in to one package. Yes, I would love to see more of that, but I love Coach Kingsbury’s system. The ball is out quick, they can still take shots, they can still take advantage of Kyler’s legs. Larry’s off to a phenomenal start, which, Larry might be one of the most difficult players to get off to a start, because everybody’s going to focus on Larry.”

Phillips Law Group


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