Yes, the Arizona Cardinals have a good running game

Oct 13, 2015, 2:29 PM | Updated: Oct 14, 2015, 5:31 pm
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It’s not uncommon for a football team, following a season, to talk about areas in which it would like to improve.

However, talking about improving is one thing — actually improving is another.

So when, at the conclusion of the 2014 season, there was talk about how the Arizona Cardinals would like to see improvement in the running game, few eyebrows were raised.

Having finished 31st in the NFL with just 1,308 rushing yards and 32nd with an average of just 3.3 yards per carry, it was certainly an area that could stand to improve.

But the Cardinals did more than just talk about improving — they actually went out and did it.

The team inked three-time Pro Bowl guard Mike Iupati to a five-year, $40 million contract, luring the renowned run blocker away from division rival San Francisco. His addition meant 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper, himself known for his run-blocking prowess, moved from left guard to right guard. Those two are essentially fresh faces along the offensive line, joining 2014 free agent prize Jared Veldheer (left tackle), 32-game starter Bobby Massie (right tackle) and veteran leader Lyle Sendlein (center), to make up what was hoped would be an improved blocking unit.

That group — along with receivers and tight ends who head coach Bruce Arians has often praised — has helped pave the way for one of the biggest turnarounds you’ll ever see.

Entering Week 4, ProFootballFocus.com had the Cardinals’ offensive line ranked as the 11th-best in the league, with a No. 10 ranking in run blocking. Needless to say, an effort against the Detroit Lions in which Arizona’s backs accounted for 191 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries probably saw them climb in the rankings.

The folks over at FootballOutsiders.com have Arizona second in the NFL in adjusted line yards, which is meant to take into account all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on percentages.

But if those kind of rankings are not your thing, try this on for size:

Not bad, eh?

Last season, seven different running backs had at least one carry for the Cardinals. Of those seven, just three — Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams — are still with the team, and the other four — Jonathan Dwyer, Marion Grice, Robert Hughes and Jalen Parmele — all currently find themselves not on an NFL roster.

That in and of itself speaks to another reason for the team’s resurgent run game, and that’s simply an upgrade in talent at the running back position.

Along with Ellington, who was plagued by injuries in a truncated season last year, the team added David Johnson in the third-round of the draft and picked up former All-Pro Chris Johnson during training camp. All three have had a major impact on the team’s early-season success, with the Johnsons seeing their respective roles increase after Ellington went down with a sprained PCL in the season opener.

Unlike last season, when players who either were not qualified or were not ready were forced into roles because of ineffectiveness and/or injuries, this year the team seems to have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield.

Take a look at this chart, which stats for every running back to receive a carry this season:

Player Attempts Yards Average Touchdowns Yards Per Game
Chris Johnson 79 405 5.1 2 81.0
Andre Ellington 15 132 8.8 2 66.0
David Johnson 18 91 5.1 3 18.2
Stepfan Taylor 8 25 3.1 0 5.0
Kerwynn Williams 1 3 3.0 0 3.0

 

Going into the season this is not the running back pecking order anyone had imagined. Yet unlike last season, this year when Ellington went down there were capable backups ready to pick up the slack. In fact, as it stands Chris Johnson appears to have even usurped Ellington and become the No. 1 option which, given his production, is not really all that surprising. Johnson has been so good that GM Steve Keim said a contract extension that would keep the veteran in Arizona past this season is, “something we’ll look at.”

In due time, of course, as there’s little reason to rush into anything now.

Sunday in Detroit was the first time since Week 1 when the Cardinals had their full complement of runners, and in the game Chris Johnson had 11 carries (for 103 yards), Taylor four (for 19 yards), Ellington three (for 63 yards and a touchdown) and David Johnson three (for six yards and two touchdowns).

Much of the workload was tied to game flow, so it may not be wise to read too much into how the carries were divvied up.

“It was good to see Andre back out there, so they all had a role in this one,” Arians said following Arizona’s win over the Lions. “Each week, it will be a little bit different, but it was nice to see Andre hit his stride and hit that speed on an inside play taking it to the house.”

“Well, depth, obviously,” QB Carson Palmer added when asked what having Ellington back in the fold brings to the team. “Having Chris in a new system and a new offense and maybe not ready for the load right off the get-go from the season because we signed him so late, so just having that opportunity to get him out and give him a blow after that long run he had and get Andre in there or get David in there, but they’re so different.

“Each guy is so different. They’re built different, they run different, they do. Each guy has a strength and a weakness and I think they each kind of play off of each other really well. What one guy’s strength is another guy’s weakness is and vice versa, so it’s a really good backfield with really good, stable backs.”

In all, the Cardinals have combined to rush for 674 yards through five games, which is the most by a Cardinals team in the first five contests of a season since 1990, when they tallied 679. Arizona leads the NFL in runs of 10 yards or more, with 23, and the Cardinals have rushed for at least 110 yards in each of their first five games in a season for the first time since 1988.

Now, it’s worth noting that each one of the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions currently rank either 20th or lower in the NFL in run defense, so it’s possible their stats are a little inflated due to a lack of resistance.

However, while the Cardinals may not finish the season leading the league in rushing, they appear to be well on their way to at least landing in the NFL’s upper half.

And given that under Arians, the Cardinals are 15-2 in games in which they rush for at least 100 yards — and 19-1 when they outrush their opponent — it appears they don’t have to be great in order to have success. No, they need only be good at running the ball, and at long last, it appears the Cardinals are at least that.

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