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David Johnson steps in, is stepping up for Arizona Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson celebrates after catching a 10-yard pass for a touchdown during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

TEMPE, Ariz. — There were some who thought the Arizona Cardinals were going to suffer tremendously when running back Chris Johnson suffered a broken tibia during the team’s 19-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers a few weeks ago.

At the same time, there were those who were confident the team could withstand the loss of the player who, at the time, was the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher. You can include the Cardinals themselves in this group, though to be fair, you wouldn’t have really expected them to say otherwise.

Next man up, after all.

With Andre Ellington sidelined while recovering from a turf toe injury, the next man was rookie David Johnson. The third-round pick out of Northern Iowa had impressed in spurts this season — the 55-yard touchdown reception against New Orleans in the opener, the kick return for a touchdown against Chicago the very next week, a pair of touchdown runs in Detroit sticking out — but still, no one could have been quite sure of what the Cardinals would get as he assumed the starter’s share of the workload.

In two games as the No. 1 back, Johnson has carried the ball 41 times for 191 yards and caught seven passes for 52 yards, scoring once.

More time and evidence will be needed in order to declare Johnson capable of leading the Cardinals’ backfield, but the early returns are certainly promising.

“Oh yeah,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said when asked if the rookie has shown more than he was hoping to see in an increased role. “He needed to do a better job; this was the first time he did not look good on blitz pickup.

“He had a safety that he got confused a little bit and did not pick him up very well. That’s the first one, but other than that he’s been playing well.”

Arians was referring to a moment in the team’s 23-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings last Thursday when Johnson struggled to keep quarterback Carson Palmer safe on a passing play.

But that’s about the only blemish found on Johnson’s resume as a starter, and to be fair, blitz pickup is the exact kind of thing a rookie would be expected to have some issues with. And Johnson is improving there.

“Day one I think my head was spinning trying to look for literally everything, back and forth, from now, I know exactly — not exactly, but most likely — I can know what guy’s coming,” he said. “My head’s not spinning too much; I know, potentially, what linebacker, what side he’s coming from and everything.”

The 24-year-old Johnson is listed at 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, giving him enough size to if not fully stop a blitzer, provide adequate resistance, thereby affording Palmer enough time to either escape the pressure or get the pass away.

In a way, that ability is one of the more overlooked aspects of a running back’s game since it does not show up in the box score and does nothing to help anyone who has Johnson on their fantasy football team. But it is important, and Palmer is impressed by what he’s seen.

Saying he already had very high expectations for Johnson before he ascended to the lead role, Palmer admitted he’s even better than anticipated.

“I thought, there’s going to be some issues in protection, there are going to be some issues with his footwork in the run game. He’s just been on top of it,” he said. “He’s playing better now than he was when he was just kind of playing sparingly. There would be some issues with some stuff when he would get in for eight or 13 plays a game, or whatever it was.

“But, the more he plays, the less he messes up, which is pretty good from a rook.”

Johnson is not surprised he has played better the more he has played. While he mostly played well in limited doses, he received just 35 carries over the team’s first 12 games.

“As the game goes on and by each game, I’m definitely getting in more rhythm,” he said. “The way our linemen block, getting used to that, knowing what holes are open.”

Johnson pointed out how that level of comfort makes it easier for him to get through holes, which leads to more yards and, he noted, potentially fewer times being tackled.

No doubt the Cardinals had high hopes for Johnson, otherwise they would not have made him the 86th overall selection in the draft. He showed what he could do at the collegiate level, where he broke 15 school records and was a 2014 AP FCS All-American selection after running for 1,553 yards and 17 touchdowns while catching 38 passes for 536 yards and two scores as a senior.

The NFL is a different animal, however, and like when he was asked to take over for Chris Johnson, some wondered if David Johnson would be able to take the step forward necessary to succeed. It’s still early, but so far we’ve all watched a solid player with room to improve.

But what has Arians seen?

“A mature young man who’s getting better every week.”

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