The Arizona Cardinals have arguably the worst offensive line in football, yet they are somehow 4-1. New starter LaRod Stephens-Howling has the skill set to give the struggling offense a big boost—and keep his quarterback healthy in the process.
A laughable 2.7 yards per carry is all Arizona has been able to produce on the ground in 2012, but the way Stephens-Howling runs may change that.
At just 5'7", the fourth-year player out of Pittsburgh has a similar explosiveness to New Orleans Saints running back Darren Sproles. According to a 2010 feature by Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic, Stephens-Howling looks to Sproles as an inspiration and one who he models his game after.
Smaller backs can often get lost behind the bigger bodies of the offensive line, and Stephens-Howling has the speed to get to the edge more easily than his injured teammates Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells.
Stephens-Howling only weighs 185 pounds, but the quicker acceleration he brings to the table will allow him to hit holes faster than the power-based runners before him.
Even if the Cardinals' bigs up front continue to neglect their duties in the running game, Stephens-Howling's receiving ability will open up the entire offense. If run-blocking has been bad, pass protection has been even worse. Quarterback Kevin Kolb has been scrambling for his life, the past two games in particular, taking eight and nine sacks, respectively.
There are plenty of dynamic weapons on the outside for Arizona, including All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, emerging possession target Andre Roberts, first-round pick Michael Floyd and reliable tight end Todd Heap.
Kolb would love to get the ball out of his hands as soon as possible, though, and Stephens-Howling gives him the opportunity to do that.
Dump-offs to Stephens-Howling could serve as a substitute for the running game. Not only would it enhance Kolb's numbers, confidence and likely his piece of mind, but it would also give the offensive line the chance to run down field and put some good licks on smaller defensive players.
Although he likely won't be required to return due to the emergence of CB Patrick Peterson in that area, Stephens-Howling has taken three kickoffs to pay dirt in his career. That shows how good things tend to happen when the ball is in his steady hands. Giving him opportunities in the open field and occupying linebackers in man-to-man coverage should also neutralize would-be blitzers.
A tantilizing matchup looms with the Buffalo Bills at home in Week 6, who sport one of the league's most putrid defenses despite the addition of Mario Williams in the offseason.
According to Cardinals beat writer Darren Urban, Stephens-Howling looks as though he'll be ready to go on Sunday after dealing with a hip injury in recent weeks.
It's up to Arizona's line to block the four-man fronts in front of them.
From there, Stephens-Howling can make people miss at the second level to add a much-needed explosive element to the putrid Cardinals offense moving forward.