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Rejuvenated Johnson driving Cardinals’ potent balance

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TEMPE, Ariz. — In each of his three years as the Arizona Cardinals’ general manager, Steve Keim has signed key free agents late in the summer, sometimes after training camp has started.

John Abraham contributed 11.5 sacks in 2013. Linebacker Larry Foote and defensive end Tommy Kelly solidified the defense a year ago.

But this summer’s signing of running back Chris Johnson appears to be the best of the summer free agents Keim has brought on board.

With 567 rushing yards, Johnson ranks second in the NFL behind Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman through Week 7. Johnson has given the Cardinals a big-play threat at running back, something they have never had since moving to Arizona in 1988.

A year ago, the Cardinals had 16 runs of at least 15 yards, with the longest being 22. This year, they have 12, six of which have been longer than 22 yards.

Most of that is attributable to Johnson, as well as an improved offensive line.

Johnson gained 122 yards in Monday night’s 26-18 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. He scored from 26 yards out in the first half and had a 62-yard run in the second.

“We ran the ball extremely well against a good front,” coach Bruce Arians said Tuesday.”

Johnson now has five runs of at least 25 yards this season. At his current pace, Johnson would finish the season with 1,296 rushing yards, the most by a Cardinal since Ottis Anderson gained 1,376 in 1981.

“I love Monday night,” Johnson said after the game. “You got everybody in the world watching. It’s like a different energy.”

Johnson has taken control of the lead back role, with Andre Ellington and rookie David Johnson battling for snaps. Ellington did not help his cause by running out of bounds late in the game when the Cardinals were trying to run out the clock.

“Andre plays junior high ball and runs out of bounds in a situation where a high school running back knows to stay in bounds,” a clearly miffed Arians said, adding that it led to him calling a pass play that resulted in an intentional grounding call against quarterback Carson Palmer. “Because of Andre running out of bounds we had to keep playing football to win the game.”

REPORT CARD VS. RAVENS:

–PASSING OFFENSE: B. The Cardinals weren’t flashy but they were efficient. Carson Palmer passed for 275 yards, two touchdowns and didn’t have an interception. The protection was decent; Palmer was sacked twice. The tight end was involved more than usual, with Jermaine Gresham catching four passes.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: B. Chris Johnson broke two long runs, including a 62-yarder and gained 122 yards on 18 carries. He has added a big-play element the Cardinals have lacked from a running back in decades. Other than those plays, however, it was tough to gain consistent yards.

–PASS DEFENSE: A. The Cardinals sacked Joe Flacco three times and ended the game by intercepting one of his passes. The Cardinals played more zone than usual and blitzed more in the second half than the first.

–RUSH DEFENSE: A. The Ravens gained 55 yards on 16 carries. Defensive tackle Calais Campbell had three tackles for loss, and linebacker Deone Bucannon led the Cardinals with nine tackles.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: C. There was good and awful and not much in between. Justin Bethel stripped the ball away on a punt return in the first half, leading directly to a touchdown. But in the second half, the Cardinals had a punt blocked and missed an extra point.

–COACHING: C. The game plans were solid, and the execution was good, most of the time. But time management stunk in the final 2 1/2 minutes. Coach Bruce Arians called a pass on second down and Palmer was penalized for grounding with 2:27 left. The Cardinals cost themselves at least 40 seconds by not running the ball on second game.


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