The training camp addition of running back Chris Johnson has been a boon for the Cardinals.
There's more offseason than in-season on the NFL calendar, which naturally allows for plenty of armchair general managing during the idle months. The Cardinals were last in the league in yards per carry last season, so running back speculation was rampant.
Disgruntled Vikings star Adrian Peterson was the early hope, and then maybe a big free-agent signing like DeMarco Murray or a first-round draft pick of Todd Gurley. Gurley will be at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, but as a member of the Rams, who selected him tenth overall.
The Cardinals instead took a more muted approach. Running back David Johnson was chosen in the third round to pair with Andre Ellington, and Chris Johnson was signed after training camp began for the veterans' minimum salary.
"There was never a chance (of a flashy running back pickup)," coach Bruce Arians said. "I leave that to all of you (media) to say what we have and don't have. We don't have any tight ends, either."
The Cardinals didn't just save money and resources by shopping the discount bin for running backs this offseason, they sifted around and found the goods.
Chris Johnson ran 22 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns last week against the 49ers, and is averaging 73 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry during the Cardinals' 3-0 start. David Johnson became the first player in NFL history to score on a kickoff return, a reception and a rush in the first two games of a career and is averaging a healthy 5.6 yards per carry.
Add in holdover Ellington, who had 12 carries for 69 yards before spraining his knee in the opener, and the Cardinals are getting some of the best bang for their buck in the NFL. The average contract of a Cardinals running back is $606,483 -- the second cheapest behind only the Falcons -- and they are 11th in the NFL in rushing.
"We have a nice rotation going," said Ellington, who is listed as questionable for the game. "We have that much trust in B.A., that he's going to put guys in situations to make plays. As long as he has the guys he can trust, he's going to do that. And I feel like he has a lot of trust in the guys we've got."
The Cardinals' offense will face its toughest test of the season against the Rams, who have a fearsome pass rush. In order to neutralize it, the running game must continue to be successful. St. Louis is tied for the league lead in sacks with 13 but has allowed 4.0 yards per carry, which is 20th.
Offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said the Cardinals won't change their offensive philosophy, but in order to be effective, the running game must remain strong.
That way, "a defensive coordinator has to pick his poison," Goodwin said. "How do you want to die on the vine? Do you want to stop the run or do you want to stop the passes? And if you want to stop the passes, which receiver are you going to pick on, who are you going to double team? As long as we can run the ball, the field is open."
The Cardinals likely won't need to score a bunch to beat St. Louis. The Rams offense has accumulated only 16 total points in losses to the Redskins and Steelers the past two weeks. Its best hope to get going offensively will be on the strength of running backs Tre Mason and Gurley.
The Rams became the first team since 2012 to spend a first round pick on a running back when they chose Gurley, and he's still rounding into form following a torn ACL last season in college. Gurley made his NFL debut last week against Pittsburgh – finishing with nine yards on six carries – and coach Jeff Fisher said he will see an increase in playing time against the Cardinals.
"He's a special talent," Fisher said. "I think people around the league would agree to that. The integrity of the knee was great right around draft time and was not a concern of ours. We didn't draft him to win the opener. We drafted him to be our franchise back for years to come."
The Cardinals will aim for a 4-0 start before a stretch of six road games in their next eight contests. Not only are they undefeated, but they've won while setting team records at every turn. While the Rams could be the toughest opponent to date, there's no reason for the Cardinals to doubt themselves after a scorching start.
"We are confident because we are good and we know it," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "I don't think it's a false confidence or cockiness. I think we are just confident in each other and that's an important thing."
Images of the key players for this week's opponent, the St. Louis Rams