AP Sports Writer
TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals’ once robust running game has all but vanished in recent weeks. Now the team has to try to rediscover it while facing the punishing defense of the Carolina Panthers.
In last Saturday’s 26-20 overtime victory over Green Bay, the Cardinals managed just 40 yards rushing in 19 attempts, an anemic average of 2.1 yards per carry.
David Johnson gained 35 yards in 15 tries, an average of 2.3 per attempt. Arizona’s longest running play of the game was eight yards.
“I think they had a good scheme against us from the two weeks before that when we played them, they were ready for us,” Johnson said Tuesday after the Cardinals’ walk-through practice.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians placed the blame squarely on the offensive line and not on his rookie running back.
“Getting their (behind) kicked up front,” Arians said. “It’s not anything David is doing. There’s just not a lot of holes there and we have to do a better job. It’s a tough challenge this week.”
When the Cardinals face Carolina in the NFC championship game on Sunday, they will go against a defense that ranked fourth against the run in the regular season, allowing 88.4 yards per game.
Arians said Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are the best pair of defensive tackles Arizona has seen all season.
“The linebackers are great,” Arians said, “but they (the tackles) help make them great.”
Lotulelei and Short are great players, Cardinals left guard Mike Iupati said. “They’re big, fast, strong.”
And they help make linebacker Luke Kuechly the great player he is.
Kuechly, Arians said, has “got great instincts.”
“He’s really fast,” the coach said. “What he really is, he’s a great pass defender. People see all the tackles, but they do a great job of keeping him clean to make the tackles,”
The absence of defensive end Jared Allen, who is doubtful for the game due to a broken foot, won’t have that much impact, the Cardinals coach said.
“They’ve got good depth,” Arians said. “Mario Addison gave us problems last year and I’m not sure there’s a drop off there.”
Rest assured that the Arizona offensive linemen will hear a lot this week about their run blocking from Arians and offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, who specializes in coaching those positions.
Iupati, named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in his six NFL seasons, is considered one of the best run blockers in the league.
“We’ve got to execute better,” he said. “We’ve got to block better, block longer, extend your guys. It’s no secret. … Us O-line guys, we know what we’ve got to do. We’ve just got to go out there and open holes for David or whoever’s in the backfield and protect the quarterback.”
Most of the season, the Cardinals’ ground game has been humming along nicely, with Chris Johnson the featured back until he went down with a season-ending injury in Arizona’s 19-13 win at San Francisco on Nov. 29. David Johnson stepped in and, if anything, the running game got better.
He gained 99 yards in his first start (at St. Louis), 92 in his second (against Minnesota) and a breakout 187 yards in 29 carries at Philadelphia.
But he had only 39 yards, 25 yards and 35 yards in the three games since.
Johnson, a third-round draft pick out of Northern Iowa, knows that the running game has been crucial to the success of the Cardinals, who had the No. 1 ranked offense in the NFL in the regular season.
“When we’re able to run the ball, it keeps our offense on the field and it just overall helps our whole team,” Johnson said.