NEW ORLEANS – When Cardinals running back David Johnson heard he could expect more playing time Friday night against the Saints than he received last week against the Chargers, he didn’t sound terribly excited.
“That means I’ll probably get four carries,” he said, laughing.
Johnson carried twice in Arizona’s preseason opener but rattled off 14 yards on each of them during a game-opening touchdown drive. It was reminiscent of his 2016 season, when he led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage (2,118) and touchdowns (20). Coach Steve Wilks said he wants to see more of Johnson this week, although he wouldn’t say just exactly how many plays Johnson will get.
“David didn’t play last year, and when you talk about the timing … I think it’s important he plays quite a bit,” Wilks said. “When I say quite a bit, I’m talking about my standards.”
Wilks said he has a similar plan for starting quarterback Sam Bradford, who attempted only two passes against the Chargers, one of which was wiped out by a penalty. His six-yard completion to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones, however, earned him a quarterback rating of 91.7 after being on the field for only one series.
CARDINALS PODCAST: Helmet rule, David Johnson’s return, Josh Rosen’s debut
“I’m sure we’ll throw it a little bit more than we did last week and just look to stay balanced,” Bradford said. “At the same time, I would really like for the run game to look the way it did last week. We’ve talked all preseason, all camp, really, about coming out and establishing our physicality and being able to run the football. So for us to be able to come out and do what we did is extremely encouraging.
“I don’t think we could have had a better start than that.”
The only problem was that it went so well that Wilks yanked his first-team offense, so rookie quarterback Josh Rosen had no chance to work with the starters. That apparently will change in this game against the Saints, when Rosen is expected to play with the first-team offensive line, even if some players like Johnson and veteran wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald might not still be in the game.
Again, Wilks wouldn’t commit to a set number of series or plays, but it’s believed that most of the first-teamers on offense and defense will work into at least the start of the second quarter.
Asked what he hopes to accomplish in preseason game No. 2, Rosen didn’t hesitate.
“Completions and touchdowns,” he said.
Rosen said he’s learned something new virtually every day of training camp, and after a cockeyed performance in his NFL debut last week when nothing really got going with the second-team offense, he’s eager to show a more fine-tuned effort.
“He had a good practice today. He looked really good today,” Wilks said Wednesday after the team broke camp with its final practice at University of Phoenix Stadium. “I’m hoping that can continue to transfer over to the game on Friday. He’s still learning, he’s still growing. He’s a rookie and he’s going to have some bumps here and there, but the guy has a short-term memory, which is great. And the guy’s a great competitor.”
Bradford said both he and Rosen and the rest of the offense would use this particular trip to work on some of their silent-count mechanics and getting to the line of scrimmage with more of a sense of urgency because of the expected crowd noise in the Superdome. In that regard, it also figures to be a very useful experience for rookie center Mason Cole in his second start.
According to his linemates up front, Cole has done an exceptional job calling out all the communications needed from play to play. They’ve offered to help by barking out the calls when it comes to getting everyone set and identifying the “Mike” linebacker, but Cole has been getting it done on his own.
“He knows his stuff,” right guard Justin Pugh said of the third-round pick out of Michigan. “He’s putting in the work to make sure he’s where he needs to be. The center is almost like the quarterback; he needs to know the offense as good as anybody, as good as any of the coaches. But yeah, he’s calling out the stuff all on his own without us, it’s true.
“It’s super rare to see. I mean, coming in as a rookie and having all of that on your plate and not flinch and go out there and do it, it’s very, very impressive. Up top, mentally, he’s got it. Now he’s got to learn the game, physically, and that’s the hardest part.”
Bradford didn’t sound overly concerned, saying of Cole, “If Mason keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be fine.”
Jobs are still up for grabs across the board at various positions, from wide receiver to cornerback and special teams, but Wilks will be paying extra close attention to his defense. It forced four turnovers in last week’s win over the Chargers, but the first-year coach said the unit left too many plays on the field and didn’t tackle well enough for his liking.
The Cardinals will have to wrap up and tackle especially well in this game, considering the Saints have one of the better two-pronged rushing attacks in football – Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
“This is a good running offense. Matter of fact, they were Number 1 in the league last year rushing the football,” Wilks said. “They have two dynamic running backs and we’ve got to do a great job of stopping the run first.”
The fact that the Cardinals once again will be short-handed at linebacker doesn’t help matters. Still missing two starters, Deone Bucannon (knee) and Josh Bynes (neck), the Cardinals also lost a key second-stringer for the season when Jeremy Cash suffered a torn right ACL against Los Angeles. Arizona added a five-year veteran free-agent this week, Gerald Hodges, but he might need at least another week of practice with the team before he can help.
In the meantime, Wilks and coordinator Al Holcomb have been employing a ton of regular nickel-safety packages in practices. That’s meant a ton of more action for second-year man Budda Baker, who is assuming more of a role as a linebacker in the box. But it puts pressure on all the safeties and the cornerbacks, too, especially when it comes to covering tight ends over the middle and stopping the run.
“I just want us to come out and start fast like we did last week,” Baker said. “We just need to come out strong, have a good time, have fun and play free. We did get our hands on a lot of balls last week and you can attest that to the leaders on this defense. They’re always addressing getting to the ball and the coaches are always harping on interceptions.
“Creating turnovers is something that’s emphasized every single day in practice and that’s what our defense is all about. We know that if we get turnovers and we score on them or we get turnovers and give it back to our offense, that’s going to give us a higher chance to get wins.”
azcentral sports’ Greg Moore and Katherine Fitzgerald make their final comments as Arizona Cardinals training camp comes to an end.
Rob Schumacher, azcentral sports
Cardinals at Saints
When: 5 p.m.
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans.
TV: Ch. 12.
Reach McManaman at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Tuesday afternoon between 3-6 on 1580-AM The Fanatic with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday afternoon between 1-3 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.