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David Johnson looking more like the weapon Kingsbury’s offense needs

David Johnson #31 of the Arizona Cardinals warms up before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on October 6, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

TEMPE, Ariz. – There was plenty to be encouraged by in the aftermath of the Cardinals’ 26-23 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday. Kyler Murray reminded everyone he’s capable of stepping up late in a close game, Kliff Kingsbury once again showed a willingness to adapt on the fly and – most importantly – they picked up their first win of the season. On the road, no less.

On top of all that, David Johnson is starting to look more like, well, David Johnson. Maybe not the 2016 version that erupted for 2,118 total yards and 20 touchdowns. We may never see that guy again. But that’s probably OK, since that was a borderline historic season anyway.

What we are starting to see now is the David Johnson most fans were expecting to see 12 months ago. Through five games, he’s amassed 511 total yards – sixth among NFL running backs – while also finding his way into the end zone three times. That puts him on pace for 1,635 yards from scrimmage, which would be the second best total of his career so far.

What’s more, 156 of those yards came against the Bengals, making Sunday his best statistical game of the season. All that despite the fact he was dealing with a back issue most of the day.

“It tightened up on him pretty good,” Kingsbury acknowledged. “So I was impressed by the way he finished the game and had that huge catch for us down the sideline. We’ll have to see how that plays out the rest of the week.”

Kingsbury went on to admit it’s not a given that Johnson will be good to go Sunday against the Falcons, but that’s a long ways away by football standards. The last thing the Cardinals can afford right now is to have Johnson stuck on the sideline, though.

He hauled in three receptions for 65 yards on Sunday, including a big one for 24 yards on the final drive. With a depleted receiving corps and the game on the line, they were able to turn to him when they needed plays through the air.

“He makes it look easy,” Kingsbury pointed out. “You can see his receiving skills, and that’s kind of where it all stems from. He’s a natural receiver.”

A natural receiver that will still be operating as a running back. Questions were posed to Kingsbury a week ago as to whether or not the team might consider just moving Johnson out of the backfield and into more of a pass-catching role in the wake of Christian Kirk’s injury.

At the time, Kirk looked like he might be sidelined for a while. Now it looks like the ankle injury he’s dealing with might not be quite as serious as it first appeared. And, even in the moment, Kingsbury said the organization was never considering turning Johnson into a receiver anyway.

That’s probably because his ability to impact the game in a variety of ways is perfectly tailored to Kingsbury’s offense. He ran for a season-high 91 yards on Sunday, while Chase Edmonds chipped in with 68 of his own. And then there was Murray, taking off for another 93 yards on the ground. Suddenly a Cardinals team that struggled to really get the running game going in the first four weeks exploded for 266 yards.

To that end, Arizona has other guys that can move the ball on the ground. But no one else on the roster can really do what Johnson does as both a runner and receiver. At least not to the same extent. Not when he’s at his best.

Which is why this season is such a pivotal one in Johnson’s career. Not so much in the sense of getting paid, because that’s already happening. But more in the sense of defining who he is as a NFL running back.

Each year of his career has been remarkably different. As a rookie in 2015, he only got 125 carries, yet still managed to get into the end zone 13 times. Four of those scores came through the air and another came on a kickoff return (remember when players used to take kickoffs back for touchdowns?) as he showed the league that he was capable of making plays whenever the ball was in his hands.

That set the stage for 2016, when he looked virtually unstoppable. But a wrist injury prevented him from following it up in 2017, and either tentativeness or the offense he was stuck in held him back last season.

So we entered 2019 wondering which David Johnson was going to show up. And that question still hasn’t been totally answered just yet. He didn’t look nearly as explosive as many hoped he would over the first couple games, but perhaps that was simply a byproduct of learning yet another offense. He’s looked better lately, though, and the Cardinals need him on the field if they plan on stacking more wins going forward.

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