TEMPE, Ariz. — For the most part, Arizona Cardinals fans knew who David Johnson was prior to Sunday night’s game in Philadelphia.
The third-round pick out of Northern Iowa had impressed through the team’s first 13 games, showing ability as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Entering the game, he was one touchdown short of tying a single-season franchise record for touchdowns by a rookie, so you know his first year as a pro has not exactly been a quiet one.
But what he did Sunday in Philadelphia, running for 187 yards and three touchdowns while also catching four passes for 42 yards, was a statement delivered on national TV. What he did on his 47-yard touchdown run, a play in which he broke multiple tackles and had one vicious stiff-arm on the way to the end zone, was…special.
“I think I was just surprised that the whole opened up real quick, and ended up just seeing a gap that was open and breaking a couple tackles,” Johnson said Monday of the run.
The rookie added it was “definitely a blur” to him during the play and he didn’t really know what happened until he saw the replay after the game.
Given that he lived it, that makes sense. Quarterback Carson Palmer, who watched it, has a different take.
“It’s a grown man run. Physical,” he said. “The blocking downfield was spectacular. He’s not a guy you want to tackle 15, 16, 17, 18 times coming down at you.”
The 47-yard touchdown was just one of the 33 touches Johnson had on the evening, as he carried the kind of workload befitting a No. 1 running back. It was his third game in that role in place of the injured Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, and it was the third time he has experienced a good measure of success.
For the season, the rookie has tallied 517 yards and seven touchdowns on 105 carries, 335 yards and four scores on 30 receptions and 598 yards and one touchdown on 22 kick returns. His 1,450 total yards rank eighth in the NFL, and at this moment it appears the only thing holding him back has been a limited role.
With a lot of proven depth at the running back position, it’s understandable why Johnson did not see the field as much earlier in the season, and it had nothing to do with a lack of belief in his ability.
“When we drafted him,” Arians said Sunday of when he first knew Johnson could carry the load. “We knew what we were getting, he just missed all of training camp with that hamstring. And then we got Chris and we didn’t need him. So it was a great run for Chris, but David kept showing signs that this was what he was capable of.”
Ellington could return as early as this next game against the Green Bay Packers, so what that means for Johnson’s role remains to be seen. However, it’s difficult to envision the rookie’s touches getting reduced dramatically, especially when he’s playing the way he is.
Sunday night, he became the first player in Cardinals history to run for at least 180 yards and three touchdowns in a game, and joined Hall of Famer Jim Brown as the only players to run for at least 185 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles.
But while all that is nice, the question is how Johnson can build on this going forward. With two games left in the regular season before what is expected to be a deep postseason run, the pressure will be even greater on the rookie to perform at a high level.
“I mean, that is what we are hopeful for,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “When we get Andre Ellington back, that will be a pretty nice and special duo there. Then God willing we can get to the Super Bowl and get Chris Johnson back, then that would be a three-headed horse that would be very difficult for a lot of teams to face.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Johnson answered when asked if he can handle the role of lead back in the postseason. “With the help of all the guys around me, all the veterans helping me out, it’s definitely been I’m definitely getting a lot more comfortable with this team.”
As he has become more comfortable the game has slowed down. Johnson said he’s gained a greater understanding of how to be patient with the football. That’s what led to his monster run, and that run, he said, could lead to even better things down the road.
“Especially momentum-wise, confidence-wise,” he said. “Especially with just reading my blocks, being able to know that I’m able to, capable of breaking tackles and helping out my team — you know, stiff-arming, doing everything that I could that maybe I might have doubted a little bit, but now it definitely does help out.”