Second-year running back David Johnson as emerged as one of the best at his position in the NFL, not only in terms of running the ball, but also in his capabilities as a receiving threat.
A week after facing the league's leading running back, the Redskins are bracing themselves for another challenge on the ground. But what Arizona running back David Johnson presents is a whole different problem for the Redskins this Sunday.
Not only can Johnson be as dangerous a runner as what Ezekiel Elliott showed on Thanksgiving, but he has also shown to be a tremendous threat in the passing game, often surpassing his impact on the ground through the air.
"Big time challenge, big time challenge because when you think of a guy that can move outside and catch the ball, you think of a little scat-back type guy that doesn't run between the tackles, but he runs between the tackles as good as he catches the ball," head coach Jay Gruden said. "He is probably the best all-around back there is in the National Football League right now as far as being able to move outside, be a great route runner but also run between the tackles and run outside with his speed. So it's going to be a matchup problem. He's been a matchup problem for everybody this year.
"He's got nine touchdowns and a bunch of catches, so like I said, when you have great players like that, you study them, you study their scheme, you try to match up, mix up your intent – man, zone, all that stuff – and you do the best you can and try to get your pass rush home."
Not many teams this season have found success against him. Johnson has had 100 yards from scrimmage in all 11 games this year. At the rate he has being playing, Johnson has the opportunity to break 100 in every game this year, which would make him the first player in NFL history to do so in 16 straight games.
"They get them out in empty formations, and especially 31 (Johnson) specifically with his wide receiver background, he can run every route in the route tree," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "So, yes, it's going to be very, very important to get proper matchups on him because he's not just a random running back out of the backfield. He's really like a wide receiver lining up out of the backfield. He's very talented in his, obviously catching the ball, but everything that he can do as far as running the entire route tree."
A look back at some of the top images in games between the Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals.
While his impact on the ground may not be what is gathering him as much attention this season, he is still currently ranked third in rushing yards with 921. He is averaging 4.4 yards a carry and 11.1 yards per reception on the 55 catches he has had this year. Johnson's ability to be used in a variety of ways is part of what makes him such a dangerous weapon.
"He's one of the top backs whether he's running the ball or catching the ball out of the backfield. He always finds a way to make big plays," defensive end Chris Baker said. "He's got a lot of yards per carry and after catch. It'll be important for us to really rally and gang tackle because if we just leave him one-on-one with a DB or one-on-one with a linebacker, he's probably going to break tackles. So we've got to do a good job as a defense gang tackling."
A product of Northern Iowa, Johnson was selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Cardinals and emerged in his rookie season as one of the league's top backs. Despite not being among the top picks in his draft class, his performance on the field has made him arguably the most valuable piece on the Arizona offense.
"I think a lot of backs, for whatever reason, with the exception of Zeke [Ezekiel Elliott] are going a little bit later," Gruden said. "In Cincinnati, we got Gio [Giovani Bernard] in the second and Le'Veon Bell I think went in the second. So there's been some great players to go in the second and third round. I don't know if it's based on because of the position or what. Plus, he came from a smaller school, Northern Iowa. I think he played in the Senior Bowl, did a great job. Had some great tape out there, but,* *you know, just didn't go until the third. Hindsight, he probably would've gone [as a] top-five pick."
The challenge will be a new one for the Redskins, who have yet to face Johnson as the teams have not played each other since 2014. Preparing for him to open up the offense in both the passing and running game will be quite the hurdle, as it is less common for one player to be such a major consideration in every facet of a unit.
"You've got to try to pay a lot of attention in the film room – try to find any tendencies that may be there and just try to corral him at all times," linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. "Bring multiple hats to the ball because he's a big dude. It usually takes more than one to bring him down."
While it is certainly no easy task to bring down Johnson, the Redskins are coming into Sunday's road game on a streak of playing strong run defense. In the three games they have played since the bye, the Redskins have not given up more than 100 yards to one rusher and have produced an overall effective pass rush as well, which has made things harder for opposing quarterbacks. The Redskins defense will hope to continue this trend with their trip to Arizona this weekend.
"Their offense starts with Johnson," Kerrigan said. They want to get him involved. That's when their passing game takes off, when the running game is cooking well. It's up to us to try to limit Johnson and ultimately have a productive day."