Cardinals have questions at RB after James Conner’s injury

Oct 10, 2023, 5:32 PM

Emari Demercado runs the rock...

Emari Demercado #31 of the Arizona Cardinals runs the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals during the third quarter at State Farm Stadium on October 08, 2023 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

TEMPE — “Nobody’s going to fill James’ shoes perfectly.”

Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing didn’t beat around the bush on Tuesday when it came to the realization that running back James Conner was going to miss some time due to a knee injury suffered in Sunday’s 34-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

We don’t know exactly how much time Conner is going to be sidelined with the injury, but we do know it’s going to be until at least Week 10 following Arizona’s decision to place the running back on injured reserve.

That means Conner will miss games against the Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns, if not more, leaving the Cardinals in a tough spot on more than one front.

Not only does Arizona lose out on Conner’s ability as a runner — 68 carries for 364 yards and two touchdowns — it also misses out on the on-field leadership and the heart that comes with the veteran.

“It’s going to be a combination. Nobody’s going to fill James’ shoes perfectly,” Petzing said Tuesday. “I think all those guys (in the running backs room) are going to step up and take a part of that role and I’m excited to see them do that but that’s something we got to work through as the week goes.”

“I trust everybody in that room,” the OC added. “(RBs coach Autry Denson) does a great job of getting those guys ready and I think you saw that when (Conner) went out of the game. The next guy’s got to step up, got to know his role, got to understand the offense and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

As for who that “next guy” might be, there are a few options to consider for Petzing, beginning with the running back who finished last Sunday’s loss for the home team.

With Conner exiting in the second quarter and backup Keaontay Ingram inactive due to a neck injury, undrafted rookie Emari Demercado got the nod for more than two quarters of play.

And for the most part, he seized the opportunity, rushing for 45 yards and the first NFL touchdown of his career on 10 carries while adding a catch for 12 yards.

The moment didn’t appear too big for the young runner from head coach Jonathan Gannon’s standpoint.

“He was ready,” the head coach said Monday. “He’s been playing a little bit on third down and depending on what happens with the backs here, his role might tick up a little bit.

“But he’s ready to step in there and play football. I kind of gave him a little chat on the sideline and he was good to go. It was impressive to see honestly.”

Is Keaontay Ingram the key?

Then you have Ingram, who is currently listed on the Cardinals’ unofficial depth chart as the team’s RB1 despite missing the past two games with a neck issue and not logging a full day of practice in nearly two weeks.

When healthy, Ingram has handled the bulk of the backup duties behind Conner, though the results have been less than stellar. In three games played this season, the second-year pro out of USC has ran the rock 12 times for 15 yards and a 1.3-yard average. He’s also caught one pass for eight yards.

What about “playoff Damien?”

There’s also under-the-radar practice squad signing and running back Damien Williams to consider elevating to the 53-man roster.

Williams, despite getting to town last week, remains an intriguing option given his body of work when the games count the most.

Dubbed “playoff Damien” for a reason, Williams racked up 355 yards and six touchdowns on 81 carries for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2018-19 (five games played). He also got it done as a pass catcher behind 22 catches for 185 yards and four more scores.

When given the chance, Williams has shown he can produce. But since his time with the Chiefs, opportunities in the ground game have been few and far between for the running back, with just 42 rushing attempts for 166 yards and two touchdowns across two seasons with the Chicago Bears (12 games played) and Atlanta Falcons (one).

The big question for Williams this week is simple: Can he prove to the coaching staff that he is up to speed enough to be elevated on game day?

“That’s our job as coaches,” Petzing said when asked about the ramp up for guys like Williams. “That’s what we get paid to do is make sure no matter how long they’re here, they’re ready to go out and perform at a high level.”

Can Tony Jones make a case?

Tony Jones Jr. meanwhile is in a similar boat as Williams, having joined the franchise this week, but already has an idea of what it’s like to fill in for an injured starter in 2023.

Recording 20 of his 21 rushing attempts on the season in place of a hurt Jamaal Williams in Weeks 2-3, Jones recorded 65 yards and two scores on 20 rushing attempts. He also made four catches for 21 yards.

But until he gets some practice reps under his belt, it’s unclear where he fits in the new pecking order of Cardinals running backs.

The same can be said for Corey Clement, who has yet to record an offensive snap in two appearances.

What is known, though, is that Petzing envisions everyone pulling their weight in whatever capacity necessary in Conner’s absence.

“All those guys in that room are going to have some role in this football game and moving forward in this offense,” Petzing said. “I think they all do certain things a little better than the other guy or they have slightly different roles or runs they like or things they see well. I think that’s something as an offense and as a staff we’re really going to have to work through the next couple days.”

If the shoe fits

Added responsibility in the ground attack could go beyond Arizona’s stable of running backs, too, with quarterback Joshua Dobbs and wide receiver Rondale Moore two more candidates that could be in line for more carries with Conner out.

Both Dobbs and Moore have found a lot of success running the rock this season.

The quarterback sits second on the team in carries (27) and rushing yards (142) to go along with one touchdown.

It’s been a quality-over-quantity approach for Moore, who is up to 116 yards and a score on just eight rushing attempts.

It’ll all come down to finding the right balance of implementing Dobbs and Moore more in the run game. Petzing has done a good job picking and choosing his moments with each and could put some of his more creative looks on the line if he decides to up their rush attempts.

As the offensive coordinator said, there’s a lot to work through this week for the Cardinals ground game.

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(Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports) Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports Marquise "Hollywood" Brown walks back to the sideline after scoring a 25-yard touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023, at State Farm Stadium. (Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports)

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