Arizona Cardinals view David Johnson as a receiving threat

After catching 36 passes in 2015, running back David Johnson is on pace for more than 50 receptions in 2016.

The Arizona Cardinals view second-year running back David Johnson as an elite talent, and feel he's one of the league's elite running backs. 

After a rookie season in which Johnson rushing for 581 yards and added 457 receiving yards, the Cardinals bestowed the "starter" title on Johnson heading into the 2016 season.

Despite the presence of second and third team backs Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington, Arizona appears committed to using David Johnson in as many capacities as possible offensively to maximize his talents and create mismatches against opposing defenses.

While head coach Bruce Arians has never demonstrated an obvious propensity for incorporating tight ends into his offense's passing attack, Arians has consistently found ways to put his running backs in favorable situations through his play calling.

In week one, quarterback Carson Palmer connected with David Johnson four times through the air for 43 yards, and in week two, the Cardinals' initiative to use Johnson as a receiver more often was clear. 

Though Johnson only caught three passes, he racked up 98 receiving yards thanks to a 60-yard catch-and-run that boosted his stat total. Aside from that play, the Cardinals aligned Johnson as a receiver more often, and often attempted to isolate him against Tampa Bay's linebackers. 

We took a look at the different ways in which the Cardinals incorporated Johnson into the passing game Sunday to demonstrate how Arians and Palmer want to be able to find mismatches with the team's best all-purpose playmaker.

Johnson's first target

With three minutes to play in the first half and the Cardinals ahead 10-0, Arizona had the ball on its own 32-yard line. On second and 10, the Cardinals lined up in 11-personnel with two receivers split to the right and a tight end and a receiver on the left. Johnson was the lone back set behind Palmer, with a depth of about seven yards behind the ball.

At the snap, Palmer fakes a handoff to Johnson on a play-action off-tackle look. Right tackle D.J. Humphries rides a pass rusher up the field as both receivers on the right take off with down field trajectories for their routes. This play concept creates a large gap of space on the right side of the field, and because of the play-action fake, the linebacker responsible for defending Johnson in man coverage has to respect the potential of a run play. 

The Cardinals account for this, and they also know that Johnson one-on-one with a linebacker is an extraordinarily favorable matchup. Immediately after looking off the safeties, Palmer runs to the right and attempts to hit Johnson running flat to the line of scrimmage. If Palmer was accurate with this pass, Johnson may pick up 15 yards or more, because the linebacker in coverage is about eight yards off of Johnson and there's no one between the hash mark and the sideline who can make a tackle on this play for Tampa Bay. 

Unfortunately for Palmer, his pass sails a bit high and floats off the hands of Johnson, who probably could have caught the pass anyway. This is a significant missed opportunity for Arizona, because this play was well designed and set Johnson up on a side of the field that was completely vacated by two vertical routes from receivers. 

Johnson's first reception

Two plays after Palmer failed to hit Johnson out of the backfield, the Cardinals have the ball at the Tampa Bay 41-yard line following a 27-yard completion from Palmer to Jaron Brown. With 2:26 to play in the half, Arizona comes out on first down with an 11-personnel set featuring two receivers to the left and a tight end and receiver on the right. Once again, Johnson is the lone back.

At the snap, both receivers on the left work up field, while Palmer carries out a play-action fake with Johnson in the backfield. It's almost as if the Cardinals hit the "flip play" button in a football video game, and ran the same exact concept they did on Johnson's first target.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson races to the flat ahead of a linebacker who was kept honest by the play-action fake, while both receivers from the right run their defensive backs up the field on vertical routes. Immediately, Palmer looks off the safeties, and this time, delivers a perfect strike to Johnson between the numbers and the sidelines that allows Johnson to turn up field and run.

There's almost no way an insider linebacker can get to Johnson fast enough to make a play like this, and Palmer does a great job giving Johnson extra running room by keeping the safeties honest with a head fake. After evading the tackle of the linebacker, Johnson works up the field for a gain of 16 yards and a first down. Same play concept as the play Arizona ran on Johnson's first target, but this time, the Cardinals run it to the wide side. 

Johnson's final reception

Following the Buccaneers' lone touchdown of the game early in the third quarter, the Cardinals took the ball after a touchback on their own 25-yard line. With about 10 minutes to play in the quarter, Arizona came out in an 11-personnel set almost identical to the one they used on Johnson's first target, except for the tight end is now aligned on the right side with the twins receivers. 

Much like Johnson's first target of the game, all of the Cardinals' receivers on the right side of the field run clearing routes. Two receivers on the right have vertical stems in their routes, while Larry Fitzgerald runs a crossing route to clear out a linebacker.

Johnson's initial responsibility is to help Arizona's offensive line with blitz pickup, and once he realizes the Buccaneers are only rushing four players, he slides out on a swing route to the wide open right side of the field. 

As you can see, Johnson is going to be isolated on a Buccaneers' linebacker playing a middle zone, and when Palmer checks down to hit Johnson, there's four yards of space in between him and the linebacker. That's far too much room for Tampa Bay to give Johnson, and he capitalizes by using a stiff arm to break to the outside. 

Because two receivers had vertical stems, the next closest tackler is also a linebacker, and Johnson uses his speed to get to the edge, where he outraces most Buccaneers' defenders for a gain of 58 yards. This was just a simple check down play where Johnson had to first account for the potential of blitzing linebackers, but once he's matched up against linebackers in one-on-one situations, he's nearly impossible to stop.


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