Cardinals running back Chris Johnson breaks off a 40-yard run in Detroit last weekend.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Of the three running backs the Cardinals are using, only Andre Ellington was around last season. Only Ellington had to listen to – at least, up until his season-ending core injury – how poorly the Cardinals ran the ball.
That's why the way the Cardinals are running the ball now is so gratifying.
"We are just showing we are capable of being more than just being last in the league in running the football," Ellington said. "We took that to heart when they said we couldn't come into this season and be that way. We have worked hard to better that ranking."
The Cardinals are coming off a 187-yard rushing performance in Detroit, the most yards the team has had on the ground
since a 201-yard game against the Falcons in 2013. Better yet, the team averaged 7.5 yards per carry – and that's with the three Drew Stanton kneeldowns to end the game.
With veteran Chris Johnson leading the way, the Cardinals lead the NFL with 4.96 yards per carry after five weeks – and that's including their NFL-high 11 kneeldowns (for minus-11 yards) to run out the clock. They have rushed for 134.8 yards a game, third in the NFL. It's an amazing turnaround from 2014, when the Cardinals were 31st in the league in rushing (81.8 yards a game) and last in per carry average.
"It's not really any different than last year," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "I guess it's our year right now, knock on wood."
It's more than that, of course. The offensive line is playing better and has been upgraded. And no area has been upgraded more than running back. Johnson was signed for a minimum deal. David Johnson was drafted in the third round. Ellington got healthy (and got hurt again, but he's healthy once again.)
All three impressed in Detroit. Chris Johnson averaged an eye-popping 9.4 yards during a 103-yard day. David Johnson scored two touchdowns. Ellington ripped off a 63-yard touchdown run. The Cards already have 23 runs this season of at least 10 yards.
And yet, "we could be better, especially in the run game," Chris Johnson said. "We've been leaving a lot of yards out there."
Chris Johnson has 405 yards this season, tied for second in the NFL. He was expected to help, but no one predicted this kind of production.
"Of course it makes you feel good, but we've only played five games," Johnson said. "You've got to look at the big picture."
That picture says the Cardinals still have to play the Seahawks twice, among others, and the running lanes may get squeezed. Then again, the idea of the Cards' offense was to run if the other guys waited for the pass, and vice versa. It's a lot easier to do that when the running game is so efficient.
"Making ourselves believe it is one thing," Ellington said. "Going out and showing, that's another."
MATHIEU, BROWN RETURN TO PRACTICE -- BUT IUPATI SITS
Safety Tyrann Mathieu (heel) and wide receiver John Brown (hamstring), both of whom sat out Wednesday, returned to
practice Thursday in a limited capacity. But starting left guard Mike Iupati was added to the injury report after sitting out with a back issue.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley (chest) sat out for a second straight day.
Safeties Tony Jefferson (neck) and Rashad Johnson (hip) were both upgraded to full practice. Cornerback Justin Bethel (foot) and tight end Darren Fells (hip) remained limited.
For the Steelers, safety Will Allen (ankle) was still sidelined, but linebacker Jarvis Jones (hip) was upgraded to limited and center Doug Legursky (back) returned full after sitting out Wednesday.
The Cardinals tried running the no-huddle last week at the outset of the Detroit game. It did not go as planned. After a couple of three-and-out possessions, the Cards moved on.
"That's a very, very loud environment," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "Something about the acoustics in there, it just bounces off the ceiling. Communication was difficult. I think (coach Bruce Arians) realized it, we realized it; we needed to get back in the huddle and talk through some stuff before we got to the line of scrimmage."
Goodwin said the pace was simply too slow, and the defense was able to substitute, which defeated the whole purpose of the no-huddle look.
"At that point B.A. was like screw it, if the defense is going to substitute then we're not going to do it," Goodwin said.
Goodwin said the Cards actually did well at the no-huddle in practice. It just didn't translate.
"I've done (the no-huddle) for a very long time and enjoyed it," Palmer said. "But, I also like huddling up and making sure everybody gets the call and knows exactly what's going on."
Images from the Cardinals practice on Thursday in West Virginia