Cardinals running back Andre Ellington clinched the win in Seattle with this 48-yard touchdown run.
Andre Ellington has been asked numerous times over the past three seasons about the running back role that best suits him. Without hesitation, the 5-foot-9, 199-pounder has answered the same way: bellcow back.
After a highlight reel 48-yard touchdown run which left Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor in his wake on Sunday, Ellington has reconsidered. The player who started every game last season before he got hurt and the one who entered 2015 atop the depth chart realizes now he might be best served as a change-of-pace complement.
"Just being the competitive player that I am, you want to be out there as much as possible," Ellington said. "But I think the best thing right now, until I get a little bit bigger and stronger, is to get limited touches here and there."
Ellington assumed full-time running back duties in 2014 after leading the league with 5.5 yards-per-carry as a rookie. It didn't go well, as injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to just 660 rushing yards on 201 carries over 12 games, a 3.3 yards-per-tote average. He also ended on season-ending injured reserve with a sports hernia injury.
The Cardinals planned to give him the same role this year, but a knee sprain in the season opener against the Saints shelved Ellington for the next three games, and Chris Johnson flourished. Ellington never got his starting job back, and his carries have been sporadic since then.
But it's not an unhappy ending. Between clinching the win against the Seahawks and bludgeoning the Lions for a 63-yard rushing score in Week 5, Ellington has been lightning in a bottle when given the rock. The Cardinals sparkplug has seen his yards-per-carry skyrocket to 7.6 on 29 attempts, and he's one of only two players in the NFL – alongside Vikings star Adrian Peterson – with two touchdown runs of 45 yards or more.
"I really feel like I can stay explosive if I'm getting less (work)," Ellington said. "This year, opposed to last year and the year before, we have more guys who can kind of get it done as opposed to just me. Having those guys helps me out."
Ellington believes his ideal number of touches sits between 10 and 15 per game. Johnson has been a pleasant surprise in between the tackles, and his ability to fight for the tough yardage has allowed the Cardinals to pick their spots with Ellington.
"Running inside and taking all those hits, it kind of wears down your body," said Johnson, who has 166 carries for 734 yards on the season. "It makes it harder and harder every week for you to get ready for practice and prepared for a game. Being that we've got two guys, I can take a lot of that beating."
The Cardinals line up Ellington in the backfield and at receiver, trying to find matchups where he can get the ball in space. There's plenty of worth in guys that can exploit those opportunities, and Ellington has long been compared to one that has made a career of doing it superbly -- Darren Sproles of the Eagles. Johnson has another player in mind from his stint with the Jets.
"If I could say somebody I played with, I'd say he's like a Percy Harvin," Johnson said. "Percy Harvin is a receiver, but a lot of teams put him in the backfield and let him run plays like a running back. I think Andre is the same type of guy.
"I think if he wanted to, he could play wide receiver – especially slot receiver. There are a lot of guys in this league who are playing slot receiver that he's bigger than, but he's doing the same thing those guys are doing. He's so great with his hands catching the ball, and especially after he catches the ball making plays downfield. And then he can come in the backfield and make plays."
The coaching staff still believes wholeheartedly in Ellington, and coach Bruce Arians lamented not using him enough two games ago against the Browns. Ellington was much more involved in Seattle, getting five carries along with four targets in the passing game. He finished with 88 yards and a touchdown on those nine touches.
"Andre is a playmaker," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "We just have to get him the ball, which I'm sure B.A. will. When his opportunities call, he'll try to be there. I love having him."
Ellington is unsure if he can add enough weight to become a true featured back again, although strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris "told me he can get me a little bit stronger and faster."
Either way, he's not sweating his running back role. The Cardinals have a good thing going at the position, which currently involves relying heavily on Johnson and deploying Ellington in special situations.
"I mean, I'm still willing to take on the load if I have to," Ellington said, "but when we have help, why not use it?"
Images from past matchups between the Cardinals and this week's opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals