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Top 5 Rushing Offense Not Enough For Cardinals In 2024

Conner expects career-best 1,040 yards to be 'floor, not the ceiling'

Conner and the offensive line looking to improve on an already good rushing game in 2024.
Conner and the offensive line looking to improve on an already good rushing game in 2024.

After a full team meeting in front of Jonathan Gannon, the Cardinals disperse to their respective position rooms.

It takes less than 10 steps for the offensive line to reach their destination -- and to see once again of their goal for 2024. Up on the whiteboard is the plan to see how many yards running back James Conner and the other ball carriers can pick up before first contact.

"We want more plays where it doesn't matter who is back there," left tackle Paris Johnson Jr.said. "I could be back there (running the ball), where it's, 'Let's go. Let's go get more explosives in the run game without any contact at all.'"

Finishing in the top five of any statistical category is no small feat, let alone when the starting running back is sidelined for four games. The Cardinals ended the 2023 season as the NFL's fourth-best rushing offense, averaging nearly 140 yards per game and more than five rushing yards per play.

While the offensive line deservedly takes some credit for Conner's first career 1,000 yard rushing season, there were multiple instances where the O-line could do nothing but watch their silent leader make noise on the grass.

"James made a lot of stuff happen himself," Johnson said. "There was a lot of times where he would get one, two yards, knock somebody's head off and we'd be like 'Oh, shoot,' and then he's gone. We're on the field thinking 'that was literally all him.'"

According to Pro Football Reference, Conner had 581 yards before contact and 459 yards after contact. Both figures were career-bests and the most racked up since his rookie campaign. Gannon described the veteran as a "big guy that's hard to tackle and he's explosive."

For an offense that set out to be run-first, especially with their franchise quarterback unavailable for a large portion of the season, the stat sheet backs up their preseason hope.

If the whiteboard is any indication, 2023 may have just been the beginning of what a Drew Petzing run game could look like.

"I think we can take a huge step," Conner said. "We ran the ball pretty well last year, but there's always room for improvement. They set that goal and I think they're going to achieve that goal with however many yards they want it to be.

"Those five up there (on the line), the tight ends, just watching them work day in and day out in the weight room and on the field. They're a really locked-in group up front and I'm excited about what we can do on the ground this year."

General manager Monti Ossenfort brought in different pieces that can help bolster the run game. Right tackle Jonah Williams and guard Evan Brown came in as free agents, with four lineman re-signed.

Three of the Cardinals four third-round picks could also impact the run game. Trey Benson, the speedy and powerful hybrid running back has received praise for his home run ability. Isaiah Adams spent a lot of time in college in running blocking schemes. His Fighting Illini and Cardinals teammate, Tip Reiman, was largely considered the draft's best running blocking tight end.

"I like putting my hands on somebody, doing what I want and moving them exactly where I want them and against their will," Reiman said. "It's fun. It's the gift the Lord gave me and I'm honoring him by doing that."

In 2024, Conner will still chew up some grass and not be shy to lay down a shoulder into a defenders chest to gain a few extra yards. That's the type of running back he is.

But with the reinforcements added to the offense and aspirations listed on the whiteboard, Conner wants more than 1,040 yards on the ground.

"That was the floor," Conner said. "I want that to be the lowest I rush for in my career going forward. I've definitely got a lot of work to put in, but that's the floor and not the ceiling."