RSP’s J Moyer’s Running Backs And The Coaching Carousel: David Johnson (Arizona)

RSP contributor J. Moyer explores “the Kingsbury Effect” on Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson in 2019.  

Coaching changes can have a profound impact on the production profiles of NFL offenses. Never was this more apparent than when Sean McVay took over the Rams in 2016.

Building his offense around a wide zone run scheme, McVay transformed Todd Gurley from a 278-carry, 885-yard season under Jeff Fisher that had analysts wondering if Gurley was a bust, to a focal point of a Rams offense that complemented Gurley’s strengths and led the runner to first-team All-Pro honors.

As we head into the 2019 season, I am taking a deep dive into NFL backfields with intriguing coaching changes. We begin with David Johnson.

The Kingsbury Effect

An intriguing development in usually staid operations environment of the NFL has been the arrival of Kliff Kingsbury and his souped-up version of the Air Raid. The fundamental principle of the Air Raid is to spread the field and use its entire width to get the ball to dynamic playmakers in space.

This results in typically pass-heavy offensive splits, with a substantial dose of screens and short route concepts attacking underneath coverage. Many of these short passes replace traditional hand-offs to the halfback.

In 2016, with do-it-all quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Kingsbury handed the ball off to a running back on only 24 percent of plays from scrimmage. In 2018, despite trotting out a couple of journeymen signal callers, Kingsbury’s quarterbacks only handed off to backs 32 percent of the time.

In comparison, David Johnson only carried the ball on 29 percent of the 3-13 Cardinals’ offensive plays in 2018. That figure compares to a team-wide non-quarterback rush rate of 37 percent of the offensive plays.

Although we should expect a substantial reduction in rush volume for Johnson in 2019, a decreased volume will be accompanied by increased efficiency. The Arizona Air Raid will feature heavy doses of wide zone rush concepts and this scheme capitalizes on Johnson’s greatest strengths as a runner:

  • Excellent feel for blockers in space
  • Elite lateral cutting ability
  • Explosive acceleration
  • Great long speed

Many of his explosive runs have come attacking off-tackle as well as cutbacks off designed outside zone runs:

Kingsbury’s Cardinals will supplement the scheme with frequent read option and boot concepts that will allow Kyler Murray to key on the backside defensive end and manipulate the defender into positions that will give the offense an advantage. Because Murray is a legitimate rushing threat, his presence will open cutback lanes in the wide zone scheme by preventing the backside defensive end from crashing down in pursuit.

Even the relatively statuesque Drew Stanton is able to hold the defensive end with boot action below. The result is a wide lane that Johnson was more than capable of exploiting.

The seismic shift for Johnson’s production will come as a receiver. One of the elite space players in the NFL, Bruce Arians lined him up all over the field and targeted him on a wide variety of route concepts in 2016, resulting in a career year in the passing game.

Johnson was so effective in this role, he was named Pro Football Focus’ Best Receiver in 2016—not best receiving running back. It is unclear why the Cardinals were unable to feature Johnson this way in 2018. Instead, they targeted him mostly on traditional check-down routes:

Representative Alignment, Target, And Yards After Catch Distribution for 2016 and 2018. Image courtesy NFL NextGen Stats (

Fortunately, Kingsbury has shown a propensity for creative personnel alignment. He knows how to pair these alignments with a wide array of Air Raid-inspired screen concepts, horizontal passing, and complementary downfield routes.

These ideas will capitalize on Johnson’s unique skill set as a versatile wide receiver. Expect Johnson to return to production commensurate with his All-Pro season—even if there’s a chance that he earns more production through the air than on the ground.

Follow J Moyer on Twitter @JMoyerFB

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