Arizona Cardinals’ three-headed backfield poses challenges for defenses

Oct 7, 2015, 4:56 PM | Updated: Oct 8, 2015, 3:55 pm
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TEMPE, Ariz. – The problem is a good one.

And perhaps an easy one to solve.

With Andre Ellington due back this week at Detroit, the Arizona Cardinals will have their top three running backs available for the first time since the season opener.

All three figure to be a part of the game plan, in some fashion, but not all three figure to get significant touches. There’s just not enough snaps on a Sunday for that to occur.

So it must be hard for head coach Bruce Arians to divide the reps, especially given how well Chris Johnson has played in Ellington’s absence and the playmaking ability of rookie David Johnson.

“No, it’s not hard because the young guy sits down,” Arians said Wednesday, blunt as usual.

The young guy would be David Johnson, who is averaging 5.7 yards a carry.

Such is life in the NFL.

Ellington suffered a sprained right PCL against New Orleans, causing him to miss the past three games.

He could’ve played last week, according to Arians, but the Cardinals need Ellington healthy in December and hopefully January, not in early October.

With Ellington sidelined, Chris Johnson assumed the starter’s role and rushed for 265 yards, including a 110-yard effort against San Francisco, the 37th of his career.

His 302 total rushing yards rank fifth-best in the league.

David Johnson, meanwhile, gained 85 yards on 15 carries, helping the Cardinals surpass 100 yards rushing in every game Ellington sat out, keeping alive a streak that began Week 1, when Ellington was last healthy.

In other words, the Cardinals, for the first time in a long time, have several different quality options out of the backfield.

“It’s a handful defensively getting ready for those three completely different backs,” quarterback Carson Palmer said, before breaking down the trio.

“Chris is so good at putting his foot in the ground and getting north and staying skinny through holes. He plays with so much speed in his cuts. I think that’s one of his greatest assets. He’s a great protector; really, really smart. He understands pressures. He understands where the defense is coming from. He understands the weaknesses of the protections, which is great.

“Andre is a dual threat. He’s as good of a receiver as he is a back. He’s got a really good sense for open field moves. He can put his foot in the ground like Chris, but he can also just shake somebody down the middle of the field. He’s so quick and elusive and he’s got breakaway speed.

“David, we’re still finding out. He’s asked to do more and more each week, but I think he can run with power. He’s obviously fast. He’s pulled away from a lot of people. He catches it pretty good and runs pretty good routes. He’s a lot like Chris and Dre, but I think he’s got probably 35 or more pounds on them, so he’s a little bit more of a bruising back that can run north and south and run with his pads low.”

For Palmer, it’s an embarrassment of riches, something he’s enjoying for the first time in his 13-year career.

“There’s three starters,” he said. “Each guy can be the bell cow and get 25-plus touches a game. When they’re all three healthy, I don’t really see that happening, but they’re all very special, very unique and talented.”

The Cardinals’ 487 rushing yards are their most in the first four games of a season since 2002.

And prior to this season, the last time the Cardinals rushed for 110 or more yards in four straight games was in 1990.

The trick now is keeping it going

“I’m not sure (how reps will be split),” said Ellington, who has 69 yards on 12 attempts including a touchdown. “Coach doesn’t really, like, share too many of his thoughts, so we’ll see. We all pretty much capable of doing the same stuff, so whichever number he wants at the time we just have to be ready for it.”

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Arizona Cardinals’ three-headed backfield poses challenges for defenses