Midweek games provide a unique challenge in preparation for NFL teams, but that challenge becomes especially difficult when a team's starting quarterback is sidelined with an injury.
After suffering a concussion late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against Los Angeles, Arizona Cardinals' quarterback Carson Palmer was not cleared to travel with the team to San Francisco for Thursday's game, meaning backup Drew Stanton would make his 13th career start.
Stanton has obvious limitations as a passer, but Arizona was fortunate to match up against the worst run defense in the NFL. In the past three weeks, the San Francisco 49ers had allowed a 100-yard rusher in each game, and that trend continued Thursday as Cardinals' standout David Johnson racked up 157 yards on 27 carries.
"Obviously it was what we needed, we had to run the football offensively and protect it," Cardinals' coach Bruce Arians said. "We did a very good job of that."
Johnson carried the ball nine times in a first quarter in which Arizona established the run, and the Cardinals never stopped calling on their featured back. Without Palmer, Arizona knew it would ride its running game in San Francisco, but Johnson had to shoulder the brunt of the load because backup Chris Johnson was placed on the team's injured reserve list with a groin injury this week.
"BA didn't take to me much about the running or getting more carries," Johnson said. "He was just letting me know to prepare, or as much as I can, to prepare to like a normal week of trying to help out the team and doing my best, especially with the blitzes. San Francisco has so many different types of blitzes with different types of coverages so that was the biggest thing I was focusing on."
Johnson's 157 rushing yards are the most of any NFL back in a single game this season, and coupled with a three-catch, 28-yard night through the air that helped Johnson become Stanton's second favorite target, the Cardinals' back now leads the league in yards from scrimmage with 695 through five games.
Though Johnson's jump cuts and leg drive were masterful Thursday night, he was quick to deflect praise in a postgame press conference. The Northern Iowa product acknowledged an offensive line, which played much of the game with two backups in at offensive guard positions, for paving the way for his success.
"I felt good, I felt really good today and it helped out that those guys were blocking. Those guys are always blocking, and it's usually me if I miss a hole or I miss a jump cut or I slip and stuff like that. It felt good to come out and run the ball like we did."
It's rare for an NFL team to be so dependent on a No. 1 back in a midweek contest, especially considering the Cardinals know how important Johnson is to the overall success of the team's offense. However, Arizona didn't have much of a choice but to ride his hot hand, and backup Andre Ellington finished with just six carries for 19 yards.
"Not really, I was hoping to get Andre (Ellington) some but he was hot and it never really wore him out to where he tapped out once and Dre' came in and got a few yards, had that short yardage play for us," Arians said. "I like that one-two punch."
In just his second year in the NFL, Johnson has rapidly become one of the league's most dynamic playmakers. In a game where Arizona posed a minor threat through the air, Johnson made sure to make the 49ers pay in a major way on the ground.
"I'm continuing growing and getting more comfortable with some of the vets on our team," Johnson said. "Larry (Fitzgerald), every time I run the ball he's jumping on my back and getting excited. That pumps me up, and just to see Jermaine's passion on the field, he's always talking and telling us to run it on his side, demanding us to run it on his side so that pumps me up and keeps me going."