2014 positional analysis: Cardinals’ running backs
In the next part of 2014 positional analysis, we look at running backs. The Cardinals’ running game hit several snags in 2014 that rendered it ineffective. Here’s a look at the Cardinals’ running backs
Despite the fact that the NFL is becoming a “passing league”, rushing the football still remains an important aspect for team success. In 2014, the Cardinals managed to find success without the ability to run the football. The Cardinals ranked last in yards per rushing attempt and 31st in rush yards per game.
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Several factors contributed to this deficiency on the ground. The offensive line, particularly on the interior, struggled to open lanes for Arizona’s rushers. Their 2013 breakout star and 2014 feature running back, Andre Ellington, was hampered by injuries. Their power back, Jonathan Dwyer, ran into trouble with the law.
The future outlook is not so bleak, though. The return of their leading back and the opportunity to acquire assistance in free agency or the draft gives the Cards a chance to improve one of their primary deficiencies. The future can be dealt with later. For now, this is an examination of the season past.
Nov 9, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington (38) is tackled by St. Louis Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines (33) at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Rams 31-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Rushing Stats: 12 games|201 attempts for 660 yards (3.3 YPC)| three touchdowns| two fumbles
Receiving Stats: 12 games| 46 receptions for 395 yards (8.6 yard average)| two touchdowns
Andre Ellington came into 2014 with high expectations. After making a strong showing in his rookie year,Ellington was given the chance to be the Cards workhorse running back. The results were unspectacular.
In early September, Ellington suffered a foot injury that looked serious at first, but he played through. The trouble was that the longevity of the injury hurt his ability to practice, which Bruce Arians said was a major setback for his season. Then, a hip injury left him on IR to finish out the season. Even when he was healthy, he didn’t have the same evasion ability he did before. Of running backs who took 50% or more of their teams running snaps, he ranked last in tackles missed or broken, according to Pro Football Focus
Ideally, these injuries are temporary setbacks to a promising career. Even if they are though, there are questions that need to be answered. Arians has historically been keen to run up the middle, but that requires a big running back who can take hits. Ellington, at 5′ 9″ and 210 pounds, isn’t built like that.
Andre Ellington is making progress though. About a month ago, he tweeted that he was running again. iF he can get healthy and get some additional support, both to take the physical pounding and on the offensive line, he should be able to have a good return in 2015
Sep 14, 2014; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer (20) runs against the New York Giants during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Rushing Stats: 2 games | 16 attempts for 51 yards (3.2 YPC)| one touchdown| zero fumbles
Dwyer, the former Steeler, was brought in to be the short yardage running back. At 229 pounds, Dwyer had the physical muscle to be a significant part of the Cardinals ground attack.
Trouble started on September 17, when Dwyer was arrested on assault charges, effectively ending his season when he was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list. He was sentenced to 180 days of probation and community service on January 28.
How the Cardinals deal with the situation here will be interesting. Upon his arrest, Bruce Arians made clear his position on the situation, saying ” until he’s exonerated, he will not be a member of this football team”. If the Cardinals opt to release him, he will need a replacement to carry the load in the backfield. Regardless of what the Cardinals do going forward, there’s no doubt an involved Dwyer would’ve been a boost for the Cardinals running game.
Oct 5, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Stepfan Taylor (30) during the game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Rushing Stats: 14 games| 63 attempts for 208 yards (3.3 YPC)| one touchdown|zero fumbles
Passing Stats: 14 games| 11 catches for 79 yards (7.2 yard average)| three touchdowns
Taylor, the second year player out of Stanford taken in the 5th round in 2013, played a small role in Arizona that was expanded due to the injury issues. He has a reasonable mix of speed and power, but doesn’t have the ability to command a lot of attention from defenses.
Taylor contributed to pass protection fairly well. Per PFF, in 48 pass block chances, he allowed two QB hurries and no sacks. While it’s a small body of work, he did what he did effectively, and that’s what a team needs from its backup players.
Taylor’s future is also uncertain. Maybe he’ll be a career backup, but there’s also a chance that he could find another team. Russell Baxter of Bleacher Report listed a trade commodity for each NFL team, and selected Taylor as the trade chip for Arizona. His role in Arizona was small in 2014, but he does have talent that could help another team with no lead dog.
Dec 7, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals running back Kerwynn Williams (33) runs the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Chiefs 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Rushing Stats: 5 games| 63 attempts for 169 yards (4.3 YPC)| zero touchdowns| zero fumbles
After the slew of injuries that befell the Cardinals, practice squad member Kerwynn Williams got a spot on the active roster, and was first featured against the Kansas City Chiefs. Coming off of two morale-crippling losses, the Cards needed the ground game to step up and get them back on track. Man, did Williams get the job done.
He rushed for 200 yards and 19 attempts, giving the Cardinals the versatility they need to hold off the Chiefs. No one knew where he came from or how he did what he did. No one but Arians, that is, who said that Williams was the only practice squad guy who made players go “wow”. After that impressive opening, Williams was effective in a couple other games, and it’s possible he earned himself a permanent role in an NFL backfield, be it Arizona’s or somewhere else.
His ground contribution helped the Cards during a tough time, so for that, he gets respect points. It’s nice to see unknown players who put in work get their chance.
The Cardinals’ ground game was, in a word, bad. The offensive line wasn’t effective and no player could get a consistent stride going. The Cards are on the cusp of legitimate contender credentials, but ensuring the stability and value of their ground game would go a long way t o improving their future prospects.