Running back Jonathan Dwyer breaks off a run against Minnesota last weekend.
The correlation between preseason numbers and regular season results in the NFL has been pretty well established. There are few.
Backups fill the field, coaches hold back schemes and the main objective for all involved is to avoid injuries.
But if you took a stroll past the adjoining lockers of the Cardinals running backs this week, there was a different feel. The passing game has been clicking through the first two preseason contests, as starting quarterback Carson Palmer has gone 9-of-13 for 175 yards and a touchdown in just two series and the team is averaging nearly 300 passing yards per game. The running totals have not been as pretty. The Cardinals have carried the ball 71 times for 177 yards and two scores, an average of 2.5 yards per rush, going into Sunday's home game against Cincinnati.
Keep in mind starting running back Andre Ellington – he of the gaudy 5.5 yards-per-carry average last season – has only rushed four times for 12 yards thus far as coach Bruce Arians aims to keep him fresh for the regular season. Also, the carries have been divvied up among a variety of tailbacks behind several different groups of offensive linemen.
"If you look around the league, not everybody's really running the ball, showcasing that, 'Oh, yeah, we're this running team,'" running back Jonathan Dwyer said. "It's preseason. The times we do run the ball, we're trying to make sure it's positive yards. We haven't had the big run yet, the crazy run, but those things are going to come."
The team was tied for 27th in the NFL in yards per carry in 2013, and even though starter Rashard Mendenhall retired, expectations have increased because Ellington was the more electric runner and will now get a bigger role.
Dwyer, Stepfan Taylor and Robert Hughes aren't home-run threats, but the between-the-tackles runners do a variety of other things well and seem to be the right complement to Ellington's change-of-pace style.
"We're not satisfied with what we have so far, but the sky's the limit for our running game," Ellington said. "We can pass. I know that. We want to establish the running game and show we can rush the football."
Whether it's the preseason, regular season or playoffs, Arians feels little need to analyze rushing statistics. He wants the team to move the ball and score points through any means necessary. If a team converts a 3rd-and-1 with only one yard but still keeps the drive alive, that's more important than gaining five on 3rd-and-7.
"You run the ball 30 times for 200 yards, you don't get a damn point for it," Arians said.
It can be tough to predict a running game's potential at this juncture, especially with new pieces. While the Cardinals practiced
consistently throughout the offseason, pads weren't allowed. Arians refers to that period of time as soccer instead of football due to the lack of hitting, and while the players can mimic their duties, the physicality is missing.
There is more action in training camp, but the linemen still do not accost each other with the same intensity as a game.
"We're going hard, but we're not going full-tilt," right tackle Bobby Massie said. "I'm not trying to blow up the three-technique I'm on the team with."
The preseason games do come closest to replicating the roughness of the regular season, so while the results are essentially meaningless on a grand level, there may be a sliver of pertinent information inside the dump-truck-sized expanse of white noise. At its core, the rushing attack is successful when the blockers impose their will and the running back hits the hole quickly and decisively.
"It's kind of vanilla in the preseason," running back Stepfan Taylor said, "but you still want to go out there and beat the person across from you."
The starters will get their first extended action on Sunday against the Bengals, where the offensive linemen and tailbacks will look to find that groove.
"After an entire training camp, you know your teammate across from you," left tackle Jared Veldheer said. "That's why that's the point of being in the games, to be productive. That's the real test when you get out there, and it's a great time to break down where you're at."
Not only does an effective running game move the chains, it opens up the passing offense.
Play-action can force just enough hesitation from the defense to change a potential sack into a deep completion. It also keeps the defensive line back a bit longer, and less pressure on Palmer is ostensibly a good thing "because Carson ain't beating anybody in a foot race," Massie said.
Preseason numbers aren't going to give an accurate forecast. However, the players have a level of production in mind.
"It doesn't matter who's out there," Ellington said. "The standard is the standard, and that is to get four yards a carry. Do that, and we'll be good."
Images from the final practice of training camp