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Column: Arizona Cardinals find the ground game, and they are off and running

Chris Johnson

Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson (23) runs against the Detroit Lions during a game on Oct. 11. Johnson has rushed for 405 yards in 79 carries.

(Rick Osentoski / Associated Press)

For years, the Cardinals put the air in Arizona.

In the 15 seasons from 2000 to 2014, they had the NFL’s worst running game four times, were in the bottom five nine times, and only cracked the top half of the league once — barely — when they were ranked 15th in 2002.

So imagine how delighted the Cardinals are that this year’s ground game is ranked third through five weeks, with a robust average of 134.8 yards per game.

“We’re such a threat in the backfield right now,” quarterback Carson Palmer told reporters this week, his team preparing to play at Pittsburgh on Sunday. “We don’t have backs that bull through you and fall forward for three or four yards. We have backs that you’re scared to death of one-on-one. You really have got to worry about those guys making one guy miss and breaking an arm tackle and then hitting the sidelines and outrunning you. It’s really opened up our offense.”

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Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington and rookie David Johnson all have that ability to get around the corner and turn on the afterburners, although the latter two are currently dealing with tweaked hamstrings. That explosiveness was missing last season, when Ellington — the only member of the current trio who was on the roster — was slowed by foot and hip injuries for the first 12 weeks before a hernia ended his season. Arizona finished a familiar 31st in rushing in 2014, with an average of 81.8.

Chris Johnson has been a huge factor in this year’s turnaround, bouncing back from the least-productive season of his career (663 yards with the New York Jets) to redefine the Cardinals as roadrunners. Among running backs who have played five games, only Chicago’s Matt Forte has more yards (438) than Johnson’s 405. Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin is tied for second with 405.

Johnson, 30, who had one 100-yard game last season, has had two in the last three weeks, and he’s doing that at an age when typical backs experience a sharp statistical drop-off. He was moved into the starting lineup this season after Ellington suffered a sprained knee in the first game.

“At the Jets, he didn’t have a ton of opportunities,” Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said of the 5-foot-11, 203-pound Johnson. “The tape that you did see, you know he did some good things. But at the end of the day, he’s not 26-year-old Chris Johnson that bounces a run and runs for 96 yards. But he still had tremendous patience, balance, feet, and he runs a lot stronger than you would anticipate for a guy his size.”

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Through the first five games, the Cardinals have had 23 runs of 10 yards or longer, best in the NFL.

Chris Johnson, for one, sees the potential for even more productivity.

“Everything is working for us right now,” he said. “But we’ve been leaving a lot of yards out there.”

That’s called staying grounded — something the Cardinals have done quite well to this point.

I’ll catch it on replay

It’s an unbelievable catch Thursday that left witnesses rubbing their eyes and untold millions replaying it on the Internet – Stanford’s Francis Owusu leaping backward in the end zone and reaching around UCLA defender Jaleel Wadood to make the grab. Owusu pinned the ball to Wadood’s back as they fell to the turf, and somehow held on to complete the reception.

One person who didn’t catch the moment was Jets receiver Chris Owusu, Francis’ older brother, who had gone to bed on the East Coast.

Big brother finally learned about the astounding grab about 4:40 a.m., when he was parched and got up for a drink of water. He checked his phone on the way and saw an unusual number of text messages. He read those and learned of his younger brother’s feat.

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“It was as unbelievable as everyone said it was,” Chris, who also attended Stanford, told reporters. “I watched it several times and it got better and better as I kept watching it.”

Road warrior

The NFL comes up with some obscure statistics, and this is no exception: St. Louis running back Todd Gurley is the third rookie in the last 40 years to rush for more than 140 yards in consecutive games, both on the road. He ran for 146 yards at Arizona, followed by 159 last Sunday at Green Bay.

The other first-year backs to do that were Denver’s Mike Anderson in 2000 and New England’s Curtis Martin in 1995.

Put another way, Gurley is really good.

Mint condition

Sunday’s Cardinals-Steelers game is a homecoming for Arizona Coach Bruce Arians, Pittsburgh’s former offensive coordinator who was handed his walking papers after the 2011 season (and subsequently won two of the last three NFL coach of the year awards.)

Arians grew up in York, Pa., and still considers himself a Pennsylvanian to the core, although there’s one childhood memory that sickens him to this day.

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His mom worked at the York Peppermint Pattie factory, and, in the eyes of her family, the job had a unique benefit.

“She used to bring home the patties that melted funny,” Arians recalled by phone this week.

One night when he was in his teens, Arians had a bit of an upset stomach and didn’t have the energy to fix himself dinner. So he ate an entire paper bag of rejected Peppermint Patties, and, not surprisingly, got sick.

“To this day,” he said, “I can’t even stand the smell of them.”

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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