Andre Ellington has been begging for a larger role, with his play, in Arizona's backfield all season long. Despite getting fewer touches than Rashard Mendenhall, Ellington had outgained him in four of the first seven games of the season. He remained the change-of-pace back, however, until Mendenhall suffered a toe injury that kept him out of last week's game against the Falcons. It proved to be just the opening Ellington needed.
The rookie out of Clemson ran for 154 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. He flashed his explosive ability on his 80-yard score, making one Falcon defender, who appeared to plug the hole, miss. After that, he was off to the races. Ellington brings that home-run ability on every single play, and last week was finally the time he got to show that on a majority of Arizona's snaps.
Prior to the win over Atlanta, Ellington hadn't carried the ball more than seven times in any game. He got double-digit touches just twice through Week 7, and he wasn't once on the field for more than 50 percent of his team's plays. Not only did he get a season-high 15 carries and 17 touches last week, he played 62.5 percent of the snaps for the Cardinals. The team was nervous about him holding up at just 5-foot-9, 199 pounds, but he showed the coaching staff he could handle a larger role.
Let's take a look at a few plays that could have Ellington enjoying that same prominence in the offense, even when Mendenhall makes his return. We'll pick it up late in the first quarter. It's 2nd and 11 for the Cardinals at their own 19-yard-line. Ellington is the lone back with three receivers split out wide and a tight end to the right side. Here's the formation just before the snap.
The play ends up being a delayed draw. Carson Palmer sells the pass, and the delay holds the linebackers. It also allows center Lyle Sendlein to get out in front and help create a ton of running room for Ellington. The talented back does the rest, eluding a tackle and ripping off a 22-yard run.
Next, we'll look at the touchdown. If any one play convinces the Cardinals that Ellington needs to be a bigger part of the offense regardless of Mendenhall's health, it's this one. While that might seem intuitive, it isn't just because the play resulted in a score. It also owes to the way it happened. Quite simply, Mendenhall could not have done this.
The play call is a conventional, first down run. The Falcons seem to have everything in control, as Ellington appears bottled up for what should be no more than a one- or two-yard gain. With one little bit of shifty invention, though, he escapes Corey Peters, darts to the outside, and outruns the defense. Eighty yards later, the Cardinals enjoyed a 14-6 lead.
See Ellington in that screenshot above? He's about to be swallowed whole by Peters, No. 91. How he gets out of this is incredible. It's a play the Cardinals just don't get with Mendenhall on the field.
Finally, let's take a look at a play you'll see the Cardinals call a lot with Ellington in the backfield. The game is all but over, with the Cardinals leading 24-6 in the fourth quarter. Arizona has a 1st and 10 at the Atlanta 40-yard-line, and comes out in yet another single-back formation. The run action is to the left of the play, but that's not where the ball ends up going. That's because this play is designed to allow Ellington to make use of one of his greatest strengths: the cutback.
With the entire Atlanta defense flowing toward Arizona's feint left, an enormous hole opens up back to the right, sealed by Sendlein and tight end Rob Housler. Ellington takes the handoff from Palmer, cuts back to the right, and picks up a solid seven yards on first down.
Bruce Arians has already said Mendenhall will remain the starter when healthy. That doesn't mean he'll continue to get two carries for every one the Cardinals give to Ellington. It's clear he brings a valuable dimension no one else on the team can provide. My bet is he'll push up toward 15 touches per game the rest of the season. With his skill set, that makes him an RB3 and weekly flex play in fantasy leagues.
All images are screen shots of All-22 film.
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