With the Carolina Panthers hosting the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Championship, much of the conversation has been focused on the Panthers thin secondary’s ability to contain the Cardinal’s powerful passing attack. Larry Fitzgerald’s impressive performance against the Green Bay Packers last week only narrowed many’s focus even more on Carson Palmer, the speedy wide receiver, and the dependable Michael Floyd even more. It may not be a receiver, however, who poses the most dangerous threat to the Panthers. A threat in every offensive aspect of the game, rookie running back, David Johnson, can punish defenses a receiver, a rusher, and a returner. Fortunately, the Panthers have the right tools contain him.
Johnson showed his explosive value early in the season, even in a supportive role behind Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. The 3rd round pick out of Northern Iowa University scored 8 touchdowns before he made his first NFL start in December. When Chris Johnson broke his leg, the rookie Johnson made the most of the opportunity. He piled up 378 yards in his first three starts and in the process became the first in Cardinal history to rush for more than than 180 and 3 touchdowns in a single game.
He’s big, strong, athletic, and versatile. He has a smooth running-style resemblant of Matt Forte. He’s tough runner who turns it upfield quickly after making decisive cuts. Johnson is dangerous in the passing game also. Palmer likes to swing it to him in the flats, and Bruce Arians uses him creatively as a receiver. Wheeling him out of the backfield, sending him down the seam, or even lining him up outside as a full-blown receiver, Johnson is a threat to put up six at any time. Oh, and did I mention that the big fellow likes to take it to the house as a kick returner too?
After allowing 24 unanswered points and several big chunk passing plays against Seattle, it’s natural to focus attention on the Panthers secondary and the Cardinals receivers. Arizona will likely test the Panthers secondary deep, and their ability to stretch at will with John Brown will open up opportunities underneath. Johnson, the Cardinals most dynamic offensive player, can brutalize defenses in this position. He did it all season, and that was in a somewhat limited capacity.
Carolina has the answer for a guy like Johnson--a fast, instinctive linebacker corps, which sniffs out screen passes like a hunting dog on a fox chase. The Panthers are well equipped with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly to handle the type of running attack that Arizona can muster. Davis is known for brutalizing running backs swinging out of the flats, and Kuechly the tackling machine doesn’t let runners by on normal days.
Carolina’s answer to the David Johnson threat may also come in the form of another rookie, Shaq Thompson, who was drafted specifically to deal with these bigger, faster hybrid like players. While we commonly think of Thompson matching up with athletes like tight-ends, Carolina has been using Shaq often to disrupt running backs in the backfield, cover wide receivers heading down the seam, and match-up against these guys too big for a nickel cornerback and too fast for most linebackers.
Arizona’s offense has sputtered in their last two games. A team that seemed to put up 40 points at will, scored only 3 points against the Seattle Seahawks in their final regular season game and struggled to put get to 26 points against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs. Johnson, whose production declined after suffering minor knee injury in late December, didn’t do much in either game. The Cardinals rushed the ball for only 40 yds against the Packers last week. Arizona coach Bruce Arians exonerated Johnson from blame in the Cardinals struggles to rush the ball effectively, stating "It’s not anything David is doing. There’s just not a lot of holes there and we have to do a better job. It’s a tough challenge this week." Given the lack of running attack, the Cardinals will look to establish the run and Johnson early.
Containing Johnson has been paramount to teams’ defensive success against the Cardinals, and although he may not be the main focus of national discussion, be sure that the Panthers coaching staff and linebackers are studying the rookie carefully.
By the Professor, aka Tony Dunn
Follow on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles
Notes: David Johnson film created by FieldGulls.com