The Arizona Cardinals walked into their Week 3 preseason matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals looking to make a statement. As per usual, head coach Bruce Arians’ play-calling was aggressive and innovative early on.
But with quarterback Carson Palmer struggling to find his wide receivers down the field, the Cardinals stalled, scoring just three points in the first half.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the preseason or you’re playing catch in the backyard with your children, anytime you complete seven passes on 19 attempts, things aren’t going well.
Palmer may have struggled to break the 100-yard mark—he finished the game with 92 yards through the air and one interception—but one guy who proved he’s going to be a big part of this offense, regardless of what happens through the air, is running back Andre Ellington.
Rushing for 46 yards on just nine carries, the speedy back looks to be picking up right where he left off last season.
Ellington has quickly become a household name down in Arizona. A sixth-round draft pick just a season ago, he’s managed to turn heads ever since he walked in the door and put on a pair of shoulder pads.
Coming out of Clemson, he was viewed by a lot of scouts—including NFL Media draft expert Mike Mayock—as a third-round pick. The fact that Cardinals general manager Steve Keim was able to snag Ellington in Round 6 makes him one of the best value picks of the entire 2013 draft.
Like Jamaal Charles or even LeSean McCoy, Ellington is a unique talent. He can change the landscape of a backfield with his multifaceted skill set.
Despite his 5’9”, 199-pound frame, he can also handle a full workload on Sundays.
Handling that type of workload has historically been the main concern when it comes to “smaller” backs. With that said, his head coach has no qualms about putting the 25-year-old to work this season.
Before training camp and all of the preseason action commenced, Arians told reporters that Ellington could see between 25 and 30 touches a game this season.
As ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss also made note of, that number is remarkably high when you consider that McCoy led all halfbacks last season by touching the ball 22.8 times per game. Whether it’s 25, 30 or in the low 20s, the point is that this coaching staff understands the type of talent it has at its disposal.
Ellington seems focused on having himself a big year. It was Shane Dale of ArizonaSports.com who commented on his offseason preparations:
Since he's no longer floating under the radar of opposing defenses, Ellington said he's used the offseason to bulk up in order to be "physically ready for that pounding" that he's likely to take this year, and which he began to take toward the end of his rookie campaign.
Against a solid Bengals run defense, Ellington showed off that newfound strength, pushing the pile back and powering through oncoming defenders.
When you mix in his outstanding hands and route-running ability, that type of versatility is not only unmatched in Arizona but also around the league.
The Cardinals may have an all-time talent in Larry Fitzgerald at wide receiver, a guy who can attack defenses down the field in Michael Floyd and an explosive rookie in John Brown. Those guys can make Arians’ vertical passing attack lethal.
However, Ellington’s ability to set the tone on the ground as well as catch passes will be the No. 1 reason this offense is successful.
When Ellington is at his best, the entire offense just flows better. The best example of that against the Bengals was when he broke off a gorgeous 24-yard run right after his backup, Jonathan Dwyer, stumbled forward and picked up four yards on his own.
There’s just no comparison whatsoever between the other guys in this backfield and the former Clemson Tiger.
You can look at Palmer or this talented flock of wide receivers for answers. In the end, though, it’s all about Ellington. This guy has proven in just a short period of time that he has all of the tools needed to become one of the top weapons in the NFL.
That means the better he plays, the better this offense will be.
Coach Arians summed it up best earlier this offseason: “He’s not a rookie anymore and he carries himself differently. Probably should come across that way to you guys now. He’s a much more confident guy and more than ready to be the bell cow of the offense.”
The confident, bell-cow tailback Arians was talking about came to play against the Bengals.
If that trend continues, the NFC West is going to be a three-team race well into that grueling month of football we call December.