Published September 16, 2015
It's been a long time since the Arizona Cardinals have had a consistent running game, and though feature back Andre Ellington may not play Sunday against the Chicago Bears, coach Bruce Arians is confident his team can keep that momentum going.
Arizona rushed for 120 yards in its season-opening 31-19 victory over New Orleans, averaging 4.8 yards in the process. While it's only a one-game sample, it's substantially better than the Cardinals' 2014 averages of an NFC-low 81.8 yards per game and NFL-worst 3.3 per carry.
Arians felt his team left yards on the field, noting "it should have easily been 150 yards,'' but that may have been because Ellington left early in the fourth quarter with a sprained knee after gaining a team-high 69 yards on just 12 attempts.
That injury has left Ellington uncertain for this game, though Chris Johnson picked up the slack with 30 yards on seven fourth-quarter carries to help keep the Saints at bay.
''I'm getting there,'' Johnson said Monday. ''Just working, just having to learn the playbook and not having to think about the plays, just going out there and playing. The more and more I practice and I know the more and more I play, I'll get there.''
Another option for Arians is rookie David Johnson, whose two touches resulted in a 43-yard kickoff return and a victory-sealing 55-yard touchdown catch with 1:33 to play. The coach, though, wants to make sure he doesn't overwhelm the third-round pick from Northern Iowa.
''I don't want to put too much pressure or take rookies and give them too much a piece of the pie too early,'' Arians said. ''It's not healthy to put them in the situation too much.''
While Arizona's running game found its legs, Carson Palmer's surgically repaired knee fared equally well. He threw for 307 yards and three touchdowns and spread the ball around by finding eight receivers.
Palmer is 17-6 with the Cardinals since joining them in 2013, winning his last seven starts while throwing for 1,933 yards and 14 TDs with only three interceptions.
"You love being offensive on offense," said Palmer, referring to Arians' aggressive play-calling in the fourth quarter. "It's easy to not and sit back with the way our defense plays out there. It's great, an attacking mentality. Everybody in the huddle knows it and everyone on the sideline knows it."
While the 31-23 scoreline in last Sunday's home loss to Green Bay fell in line with expectations the Bears are in a rebuilding mode, they played cohesively for most of the game and gave themselves a chance to win late.
Jay Cutler's lone interception late in the fourth quarter thwarted that potential rally, but there were positives. Chicago committed itself to the run and was rewarded as Matt Forte racked up 141 yards on 24 carries, a number he reached only once last season.
''Nobody had that stupid look on their face,'' said Forte, who added 25 yards on five receptions and occasionally lined up in the slot. ''Like before, when something would happen saying like the game is lost already when there was time left. I was glad we didn't have that and that we came out and kept fighting.''
Though the Bears outgained the Packers 402-322, their defense is a concern. They failed to sack Aaron Rodgers, who had three TD passes and only five incompletions, allowed 6.1 yards per play and were unable to generate any turnovers.
''We kept fighting,'' safety Antrel Rolle said. ''We kept pushing. We were looking for the victory. We were seeking, we were trying to find it, trying to find it, we just came up short.''
Rolle and the Bears secondary will have to do better containing the Cardinals wideouts after allowing Rodgers to go 13 for 17 targeting his receivers. Palmer connected 12 times in 17 attempts with five wide receivers for 159 yards and a touchdown against the Saints.
Oddly, a game-plan tendency from last season may help the Bears in this game. Forte is one of the league's best pass catchers coming out of the backfield - he had a career-high 102 receptions in 2014 - and could very easily exploit Arizona's issues on the perimeter against quick passes and screens.
''I think Matt Forte is the best at it when it comes to the screen game,'' Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson said. ''He's an elite back. He can do it all.''
The Cardinals allowed Drew Brees to go 11 for 18 for 183 yards and a touchdown in three-wide-receiver formations, which the Bears utilized a majority of the time last week and gained 306 yards on 41 such plays.
This is the first game between the teams since the Bears scored two defensive touchdowns in a 28-13 road victory in 2012. The Cardinals are making their first trip to Soldier Field since overcoming Cutler's 369 yards and three TD tosses in a 41-21 win in 2009.