David Johnson brings needed spark to Cardinals' rushing attack
One thing that a few recent Super Bowl winners have in common is finding a RB—who didn’t see much playing time early in the season—that earns a larger role during the end of their Super Bowl run. In 2010, James Starks saw his first career offensive snaps in Week 13, and saw all of the Packers designed runs in the Super Bowl. In 2012, Bernard Pierce saw fewer than 20 snaps in each game prior to Week 16, and then averaged 25 during their last six games. He had a positive rushing grade in eight of his last nine games that season. Just last year, the Patriots added LeGarrette Blount to the roster in Week 12, and he had 44 carries over the conference championship game and Super Bowl.
If the Arizona Cardinals end up winning the Super Bowl, they will continue that trend, thanks to David Johnson.
Coming into Thursday Night Football, the Cardinals had the lowest-graded rushing unit in the league. Most of Chris Johnson’s stats came over his four best games. Over his other seven, he averaged 3.1 yards per carry, never had a run longer than 13 yards, had no touchdowns, and two fumbles. The main thing that separated his bad games from his good is when he was able to break out for that one long run, but they were rare.
Now Chris Johnson is on injured reserve-designation for return, and Andre Ellington has also been out, so the running back position has belonged to David Johnson in each of the last two games. He had been playing in just 24 percent of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps prior to the last two weeks; now he is playing in 75 percent.
On Thursday night, David Johnson earned a +2.6 run grade—the highest for an Arizona running back over the past two years.
He has 92 yards on 19 carries, with 51 coming after contact. On 42 percent of his carries, he gained at least 5 yards, and he was impressive on a few of his runs that didn’t get 5 yards; including a conversion on 4th-and-1.
Part of what made his performance so impressive was that the Cardinals’ run blocking wasn’t as good as usual. Coming into the game, Arizona had the sixth-best run block grade of any NFL team this season. Tight end Jermaine Gresham missed the game with an injury, leaving Arizona with Troy Niklas and Darren Fells at tight end, who own -2.7 and -1.9 run block grades, respectively, against the Vikings. For most of the season, Chris Johnson wasn’t able to do much with good run blocking; on Thursday night, David Johnson was a lot more consistent with sub-par run blocking.
The Cardinals have some clear strengths in Carson Palmer (PPF’s top-graded QB entering Week 14) and their coverage unit, and neither were playing up to their usual standards on Thursday night. Despite that, thanks to players like David Johnson, Arizona was still able to pull out the victory. They have clinched a playoff spot, and now they are finding more ways to win, which makes them even more dangerous come playoff time.