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David Johnson's Usage Returns To 2016 Levels

Running back gets involved in downfield passing game against Lions

RB David Johnson hauls in a 27-yard touchdown pass against the Lions.
RB David Johnson hauls in a 27-yard touchdown pass against the Lions.

It was a surprise last year when the Cardinals staff used David Johnson as a traditional running back instead of a dual threat.

The hire of coach Kliff Kingsbury was expected to return him to his versatile roots, and in the season opener, it came to fruition.

Johnson finished the game with 82 rushing yards and 55 receiving yards (including a 27-yard touchdown grab), but beyond the raw numbers, the bigger story was his usage.

Johnson's role mirrored that of 2016 -- when he finished with 1,239 rushing yards, 870 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns -- and by all appearances that will continue throughout 2019.

"We expect him to score touchdowns either through the air or on the ground and have a bunch of yards from scrimmage," Kingsbury said. "He can do it all, and we're going to try to utilize him in this way."

Here are some numbers illustrating the change under Kingsbury, courtesy of Pro Football Focus:

  • Johnson's average depth of target dropped from 4.5 yards past the line of scrimmage in 2016 to 0.5 last year, as he was used more as a checkdown outlet than a vertical threat. Against the Lions, Johnson's average depth of target shot back up to 6.1 yards, which was the second-highest among running backs with more than one target.
  • Johnson lined up in the slot 12 times and split out wide four times among his 77 snaps.
  • He caught 6-of-7 targets for 55 yards and a touchdown, which computes to a passer rating of 139.0 when targeted. Last year, his passer rating when targeted was just 88.4, while it was 101.7 in 2016.
  • Johnson had more variety on his carries, going up the middle on zone reads but also to the outside more often than last year. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry in the contest, a yard better than his total from 2018.

In the preseason, Johnson was coy about his usage, but he seemed excited. I caught up with him Monday to dissect the touchdown catch on a seam route out of the backfield, and he was happy about his utilization.

"It was really good," Johnson said. "We didn't do much in the preseason, so now we were really able to open up our playbook."