TEMPE, Ariz. — Defenders like to make fun of David Johnson because he’s almost always smiling.
But Johnson usually gets the last laugh.
While the Arizona Cardinals did a lot of things wrong in their season-opening loss to the New England Patriots, Johnson did a lot of things right.
His mix of skill and instinct was on full display in a 45-yard run that led to the Cardinals’ go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Johnson began the play with a jump cut worthy of a long jumper, followed by a spin to get out of the clutches of would-be tacklers. He put his hand to the turf to keep his balance and stiff-armed two defenders as he broke into the open field.
“A crazy run, basically,” Johnson said after the Cardinals practiced Wednesday. “It was all instincts. That’s all I could say is that all instincts took over that run for sure.”
Johnson is big — 6-foot-1, 225 pounds — with power, agility and surprising breakaway speed.
In the 23-21 loss to New England, Johnson carried the ball 16 times for 89 yards and caught four passes for 43 yards, one of them a 26-yarder that featured a couple of open-field moves and a quick dash past would-be tacklers.
The Cardinals, who had the No. 1 offense in the NFL last season, are known for Carson Palmer’s passing Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown, among others. But Palmer points to Johnson as a critical player if the team is to have the success it expects this season.
“It goes where Dave goes, there’s no doubt,” Palmer said. “He does so much in the passing game, not only protection but running routes. He catches a lot of balls. But very few things will work in the pass game if we don’t have a run game. So, him running the ball like he’s been running from the beginning of training camp until has tremendous effect on the pass game. He’s as big a part of this offense as anybody.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson had the highest rushing grade of opening weekend at 81.4, followed by Melvin Gordon (80.5), DeAngelo Williams (80.1) and Todd Gurley (78.7).
In the six games since Johnson became the starter as a rookie late last season, he leads the NFL with 531 yards rushing and 791 yards from scrimmage.
Gurley and Gordon were the big-name backs chosen in the first round of the 2015 draft. Johnson was selected in the third round out of Northern Iowa.
Coach Bruce Arians said he saw immediately what kind of potential Johnson had, but brought him along slowly.
The first time Johnson touched the ball in an NFL game, he caught short pass from Palmer and turned on the speed in a 55-yard touchdown play. The second time he touched it, he returned a kickoff 108 yards for a score.
Still, he didn’t get the starting running back job until Chris Johnson went down with a season-ending knee injury. Chris Johnson is back but David has a firm hold on the job now. Chris Johnson only played two snaps against the Patriots.
Chris will play when David decides he’s too tired.
“He never really got tired” against New England,” Arians said. “There was the one time we had a longer drive and he tapped out, and Chris went right in and Andre (Ellington) jumped in on third down. Hopefully we have some longer drives and he taps out more often and we can get Chris in there.”
Johnson is such a nice guy it’s hard to reconcile that with the hard-hitting player on the field.
“When you get on the field, it’s a different story, especially as a running back,” he said. “You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to be able to take the pounding and be able to get the yards.”
Not much can make him angry, he said. He gets mad at himself when he makes a mistake. And then there’s those times when the defenders are “chirping.”
“I try to show them,” Johnson said, “that just because I smile, I’m not a soft guy.”