In part due to Williams' unfortunate preseason knee injury, Wells was virtually the entire run-game threat in 2011—he accounted for 73.6 percent of rushing yards that came from Cardinals running backs as well as 10 of 12 rushing touchdowns.
This tandem will share the backfield to form what could be one of the better one-two punches in the NFL for the next handful of years. But how will they lead the lowly Arizona Cardinals to the playoffs?
Arizona ranked 30th for time of possession last year. Though a lot of that was because of the quarterbacks and too many incomplete passes, the run-game woes factored into it as well.
Yes, Wells rushed for 1,047 yards, but he had no help. The team's second-leading rusher was LaRod Stephens-Howling, who managed just 167 yards.
The Cardinals passed the ball 60.8 percent of the time—the sixth-highest percentage in the NFL. Of the top 10 teams in terms of percentage of passing plays, Arizona ranked last among them in passing yards per game and completions per game.
A successful running game eats away at the clock. Possessing the ball longer keeps it out of the hands of the opposing offense, and Arizona has some daunting offensive powerhouses on the schedule this season.
Accordingly, keeping the opposing defense on the field longer wears them down, and that can open up the entire offense.
Saving the Defense
As highlighted by Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com, the Cardinals defense improved by leaps and bounds as the 2011 season progressed. The better they were, the better the win-loss record became.
And it worked out to more control of the ball on offense.
During the first eight games of the season, the offense averaged 27:52 time of possession. Over the final eight games, that increased to 29:33. The improved defense helped increase the offense's time on the field, no doubt, but a better rushing attack would have created an even larger discrepancy in TOP.
Look no further than Week 12 for proof of that.
That Sunday—November 27, 2011 at St. Louis—Wells set a franchise record, with 228 yards rushing on 27 carries. He scored one touchdown, but he could have had two more.
With those two would-be touchdowns added, the score would have been 31-20 instead of 23-20,—both runs set up Jay Feely field goals—and the game would not have been almost lost. (If you remember, the Wells 53-yard run came in the fourth quarter of a 20-20 game.)
Amid all that, Arizona possessed the ball for a team regular-season-high 33:59.
A fresh defense can mean the difference in the unit being good and great, and a model for that is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers don't have the most talent in the league on defense, but their offense is consistently among the top five in time of possession—they were No. 1 for TOP last year, again in 2007 and haven't been outside the top five since they were No. 7 in 2006.
The best defense is a good offense.
Hiding Quarterback Play
This is a lot easier than it sounds.
After all, Frank Gore and Ray Rice have done it for years.
The quarterback's ability to trust his running backs to gain yards on a consistent basis takes a lot of pressure off him to move the chains on his own.
A solid running game literally can hide the play of the quarterback.
Going back to that Week 12 game against the Rams, can you tell me what John Skelton's stats were without looking?
Most cannot, and it's because of Wells' performance and the victory.
For the game, Skelton completed 12-of-23 passes for 114 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 30.0 QB rating.
The ESPN headline:
"Patrick Peterson ties mark with 4th punt return TD, Beanie Wells gains 228 yards in Cards' win."
You can look one week prior to find an example of how the lack of a running game exposes the quarterback woes. Week 11 at San Francisco, Wells carried the ball just eight times for 33 yards. Chester Taylor was Arizona's leading rusher, carrying the ball once for 34 yards.
Skelton completed 6-of-19 passes for 99 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions for a 10.5 rating.
The ESPN headline:
"Alex Smith throws 2 TDs as 49ers pick off Cards QB Skelton 3 times."
Good running backs give leeway to quarterbacks; they don't have to be perfect every game of the season. It's a good thing to know the running game can pick a QB up if he's struggling against a defense.
In Other Words...
–Sustaining long drives keeps opposing defenses on the field longer. Wearing them down with Wells and Williams will help the entire offense be more successful.
–Arizona's defense should be ready to step up and become elite, and keeping them fresh will make them even more dominant.
–Whether it's Skelton or Kevin Kolb at the helm, he will have the confidence of knowing his running backs are there to help and can be fallen back on in a time of need.
As pointed out above, the Cardinals passed the ball 60.8 percent of the time last year. Being considered a run-heavy offense does not mean the offense has to run the ball the majority of the time—though that formula works for some teams.
Switching from pass-heavy to run-heavy is a minute change in play-calling. To move from the top 10 in passing percentage to the top 10 in running percentage, all the Cardinals have to do is turn four passing plays into running plays per game. Arizona averaged 62 offensive plays per game in 2011. That drops the percentage from 60 to about 55 percent of all plays being passes.
Four plays. Judging by how the quarterbacks performed last year, four more running plays may have helped the team, but they can help this season.
There is no doubt a healthy Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams will lead the Arizona Cardinals back to the postseason in 2012.