David Johnson brings needed spark to Cardinals’ rushing attack

On TNF, Arizona' David Johnson earned the highest game grade of any Cardinals RB over the past two years.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

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.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • Craig W

    So sad we blew this game. A few puzzling coaching decisions, a few fumbles and a few dropped INTs. It helped their running game having Linval Joseph on the sideline.

    • NAJ

      I don’t blame any coaching decisions, a lot of coaches would have tried to get a few extra yards for their kickers. 49 yards isn’t easy. Xavier’s dropped int hurt as that could have been a pick 6 down the sideline and Harris drop led to a TD the very next play although that was a really difficult one. Norv also called a good game mainly barring a few too many runs on 1st down. Peterson fumbling has cost us yet again in a big game.

      • Craig W

        Jarius Wright also cost us points in the first half with his fumble. It was stripped way too easy. I didn’t like the play call on the Peterson reverse, but Peterson also has to know to tuck that ball away and take the loss.

  • krebs

    David runs like a young Gale Sayers. Deceptively fast and powerful. He will make a huge difference in the Cards chances of getting to the Super Bowl.

    • AJ

      Did you use him as a reference because on TNF they put up the stat that he’s the first rookie to have at least 4 rushing TDs, 4 receiving TDs, and 1 kick return for TD since Gale Sayers

      • krebs

        No. I actually saw Sayers play as a kid and the comparisons are striking. However, someone did tell me about that stat. Amazing, and I cherish my memories. That’s what old age is about.lol

    • crosseyedlemon

      Imitating Sayers would be great as long as he leaves out the hurdling of defenders. That’s how knees get blown out and careers get ended.

      • krebs

        Agree, and David has done that on occasion.

    • Tim Edell

      To compare David Johnson to Gale Sayers is like comparing Jimmy Claussen to Slingin Sammy Baugh!!

      • krebs

        I must assume you have not seen Sayers nor D. Johnson play. The skies the limit for Johnson’s potential. Currently, David is a better receiver than Sayers.

        • Tim Edell

          Put down the egg nog dir!!

  • Cant FixStupid

    David Johnson was my #1 fantasy sleeper coming into this season, then Arizona signed CJ n ruined that for the most part until now. I still really don’t understand why they continually went with CJ over DJ, when it was 100% clear the talent n big play ability DJ had from his 1st touch. Even with CJ starting, DJ should have at least had 10 touches a game on offense, 3-5 catches, 5-7 rushes, but some games he barely played. My opinion, CJ getting injured was a blessing in disguise for Arizona, as David Johnson makes them a better and even more explosive offense.

  • Sir I’Declair

    Published weeks before DJ’s game against the Eagles… Brilliant. Good call Nathan Jahnke