The Arizona Cardinals' running back situation has been defined by the word "in" over the last three seasons. Unfortunately it's not "in" the end zone but rather, ineffective, injury-prone and inconsistent. The Cardinals finished dead last in rushing yardage in 2012 with 75.3 yards per game on the ground. With a new coaching regime and a shake-up in the backfield, the Cardinals have nowhere to go but up.
The Cardinals currently have six running backs on the roster, and we'll examine each of them to paint a full picture about the potential for the Arizona ground game to be better than last season.
The six backs are four veterans and two rookies in Rashard Mendenhall, Ryan Williams, William Powell and Alfonso Smith. The rookies are Stepfan Taylor from Stanford and Andre Ellington of Clemson. Let's start with Mendenhall who might wind up on the top of the depth chart.
Last season was a tough one for Mendenhall. He didn't get on the field until Week 6 and missed the opening games of the season recovering from a torn ACL he suffered on New Year's Day in the Pittsburgh Steelers' season finale for 2011.
He was limited to 51 carries for 182 yards and no touchdown runs. Let's break down Mendenhall, looking particularly at his outing on a wet, rainy day against Philadelphia in Week 5.
In this first frame, we see Mendenhall (yellow circle) lined up in an I-formation with single receivers on each side. The Philadelphia Eagles sense the run and are walking defenders up toward the line of scrimmage.
Look at the blocking Mendenhall gets on the play as he has his wide receivers engaged in blocks and a lineman who has a linebacker engaged in the red circle. Mendenhall (yellow arrow) was able to burst through for a 16-yard gain but it was called back on a penalty.
In this play, Mendenhall is standing next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (yellow circle). Notice the formation with the two wide receivers (orange arrows) tight to the formation with the tight ends (red arrows) lined up the way they are.
This makes it tough for the Eagles to know if they're going to stay in and block or possibly flare out for a pass. The Eagles themselves are lined up mainly in the white box in the middle of the field, so the sidelines are open for business.
Mendenhall takes a short pass from Roethlisberger and is in open space. He has one defender to beat which he does with a nice in and out move. Once the defender misses, he has clear sailing to the end zone. Tight end Heath Miller is also heading downfield to throw a block if needed. The blue box indicates where a pair of Eagles ran into each other and made this play easier to execute.
Notice again how Mendenhall is in an I-formation. This is a look you won't expect to see much of out Arizona since they no longer have a fullback. They traded Anthony Sherman to Kansas City for cornerback Javier Arenas. Sherman was the lone fullback on the roster.
Mendenhall again gets great blocking from the offensive line (red boxes) and wide receiver (blue box) and has a lane to run. He would gain 17 yards and a first down on the play before he fumbled the ball out of bounds. Keep in mind, the game was played in rainy conditions.
Williams has been injury-plagued during his first two years in the league. He lost his rookie season to a ruptured patella tendon in the preseason against Green Bay. In 2012, he lasted just five games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in St. Louis. Williams gained 164 yards on 58 carries before he was injured.
We'll take a look at Williams' outing in Week 3 against the Eagles in this article.
Williams stands next to quarterback Kevin Kolb in the red circle. Arizona has three wide receivers and tight end Rob Housler (second from bottom) lined up to go out for passes. Williams will get the hand off on a draw play.
As we see, there are solid blocks by the wide receivers at the top (Larry Fitzgerald) and bottom (Michael Floyd) of the image. Andre Roberts, a lineman and Housler (top to bottom) work in the middle of the image to throw three blocks and Williams is able to gain 22 yards for a first down.
On the next play, he gets the call again. He gets four good blocks (blue Xs) and has two more about to be thrown (red lines). The only downside is that he trips on the 46-yard line and falls down untouched for a two-yard loss.
While most of his action came late in the game, Williams showed he can find the holes and make plays if the blocking can hold up. And he doesn't trip himself up in the backfield.
Powell leads all of the running backs on the Arizona roster with 217 yards gained on the ground in the NFL last season on 60 carries. Powell was limited to five or fewer carries per game for most of the season. Only twice did he rack up more than 10 carries in a game with mixed results.
Powell picked up 70 of his 217 yards on 13 carries against Buffalo. He also took the ball 14 times and ran for 52 yards in the meaningless season finale at San Francisco. He's going to compete for a job on the roster, but would be seldom used barring injury.
Alfonso Smith didn't gain a yard last season and didn't get a single carry. His only carries were in 2011 when he picked up 102 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries for the Cardinals. He had four carries over the final nine games of that season. Smith doesn't have a carry longer than 12 yards in his NFL career and looks to be primarily a back to serve on special teams.
The rookies hold a lot of promise, and it should be interesting to see which one of them comes out on top between Taylor and Ellington. The winner of this battle might wind up third on the depth chart behind Mendenhall and Williams.
Ellington was picked in the sixth round from Clemson and racked up 1,081 yards and eight rushing touchdowns last season for the Tigers. His style of running is low to the ground, and he has the ability to make defenders miss. In addition, he's got excellent balance as seen in this clip below.
Clemson is at its own 17-yard line, and Ellington (No. 23 in orange) gets the handoff back at the Clemson 11-yard line.
He cuts right and nearly gets wrapped up at the 20-yard line for a three-yard gain. Instead, he keeps his feet moving, and the defender is forced to take a three-yard ride with Ellington. A second defender tries to make the tackle but can't. A third one stands there in awe before Ellington takes off running and gets to the Auburn 17-yard line for a 66-yard gain.
But how did he do it? Check out the tape and turn down the sound.
Notice on the third replay how he is able to keep his balance. He has the presence of mind to keep his hand down three times to keep the rushing attempt alive. It turned a three-yard gain into a 66-yard scamper. In the rest of the video, he's able to step out of tackles, find the right lane downfield and extend plays which will be a big asset if he can do that for the Cardinals.
Taylor rolled up 1,530 yards and 13 touchdowns on 322 carries last season for the Stanford Cardinal. In this highlight video, you can see why Arizona took him in the fifth round with the 140th overall pick.
If he gets a lane, he's able to accelerate and get away from defenders. He's able to make those second-level defenders miss tackles and turn good runs into great runs that wind up in the end zone. Taylor can also score the tough-yardage touchdowns up the middle as shown in the video. Turn down the sound here again.
Between veteran leadership, a much-improved offensive line and a pair of rookies who can wow, the Cardinals should enjoy much better production out of their running backs in 2013.