TEMPE, Ariz. – Next. Man. Up.
Last season’s often-used slogan has resurfaced; dusted off the shelf following the injuries to Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, the Arizona Cardinals’ top two running backs.
Third in that position group is rookie David Johnson.
The Cardinals will turn to their third-round pick this week at St. Louis, giving Johnson the keys to the backfield.
“I feel ready to go,” he said Wednesday. “I can’t wait for the opportunity.”
Of course, Johnson won’t be asked to go at it alone.
Stepfan Taylor and Kerwynn Williams, recently elevated from the practice squad to the active roster, are expected to see playing time as well, but for the most part, it will be Johnson who will see the bulk of the carries against the Rams, and perhaps the foreseeable future.
“It’s not like I haven’t been here throughout practice and being in the game, preparing each week,” he said. “It’s nothing different. The only thing is that I’m playing a little bit more.”
Johnson served as Chris Johnson’s backup earlier in the season when Ellington was sidelined by a knee injury. In those three games, including a Week 4 matchup against the Rams, Johnson rushed a combined 15 times for 85 yards and a touchdown.
On the season, Johnson has carried the ball 35 times for 139 yards.
“When Andre was out, David was playing a lot more early in the year; played extremely well,” head coach Bruce Arians said, specifically mentioning Johnson’s first meeting with the Rams when he ran the ball three times for 18 yards and caught four passes for 63 yards and a touchdown.
That Oct. 4 game also saw Johnson fumble the opening kickoff, one of his two lost fumbles this season.
Ball security has been somewhat of an issue for Johnson, especially early on.
“I have in the back of my mind, ‘high and tight’,” he said, referring to where to hold the football. “(Fumbles are) something that as a running back, you can’t have especially if you want to be able to run the ball. You don’t want to have the ball on the ground. Just having it high and tight throughout practice and not dropping it.”
Johnson also pointed to his improved pass protection, route running and just running the ball in general.
“Everything has developed a lot more,” he said.
And what of the pressure of being asked to step into a starting role vacated by the league’s fourth-leading rusher?
Johnson quickly dismissed such a notion. He’s played in every game, after all, and last week in San Francisco scored his team-best fourth rushing touchdown and eighth overall, the most by a rookie in the NFL this season.
“Don’t over think everything,” Johnson said of the advice he’s been given by teammates. “Just come out and play my game. I don’t need to try to do too much, just do my role and help out the team as much as I can.”
The Cardinals drafted Johnson with the 86th overall pick, selecting him out of Northern Iowa, where he was a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his final three seasons.
At 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, Johnson gives the Cardinals power coming out of the backfield.
“Just a different size back, really,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “When you look at Andre and Chris, he’s probably got 30 pounds on those guys. Straight-ahead speed, he’s probably as fast as those guys. Those guys are definitely shiftier and quicker, but he just runs through people and through arm tackles. Kind of like a Todd Gurley-style runner. Fast in the open field and just big, hard to bring down. We’re all excited to see him play.”
Sunday will mark Johnson’s 16th professional game, including the preseason, two more than he played his senior year.
“Actually, I’m feeling really, really good,” he said, mindful of the proverbial rookie wall.
That’s good, because the ball is expected to be his hands this week more than it’s ever been this season.
Johnson, coming off a season-high eight-carry performance against the 49ers, hopes the more he touches the ball, the more he’ll get a feel for the game.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “I can’t wait. I’m blessed. I’m very glad to have this opportunity to help out the team.”
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