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All Aboard The Ellington Train

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Andre Ellington had his coming-out party last week, but don't expect him to be the starter. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Andre Ellington had his coming-out party last week, but don't expect him to be the starter. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Even if he’s not the starter, the rookie is the “right” guy in the Cardinals’ backfield.

With all the justifiable attention that Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald, and Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, have received this season, a lot has been lost on the Cardinals’ search for a consistent threat at running back since the departure of Edgerrin James. With the offseason signing of Rashard Mendenhall, the speculation was the veteran simply needed to stay healthy enough to remain on the field and keep opposing defenses honest. By doing that, Palmer and Fitzgerald could lead an offense loaded with receiving weapons, while the defense’s assortment of playmakers could allow the running game to play third fiddle on the hierarchy of on-field importance.

Clearly, Mendenhall wasn’t going to stay healthy. And Andre Ellington had other plans.

At 5-foot-9, 199 pounds, the rookie tailback isn’t likely to leave many defenders physically bruised in his wake. That’s most likely attributed to their inability to even catch him. And, as was proven last week in Arizona’s 27-13 win over the flaming-out Falcons, the emotional battering and physical exhaustion that he can unleash on the opposition can be much more jarring than the toughest of power backs the game has known.

“We said that he was going to be a potential game-wrecker going into this ballgame because he’s a guy that has very good speed, very good vision, and he did a very nice job today,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said after Ellington gained 154 yards and a touchdown in his first NFL start.

Make no mistake, whenever Mendenhall is healthy, the starting role is likely to be his despite Ellington’s performance. That’s not to suggest that Ellington has durability issues or hasn’t respectfully earned the starting position, it’s more of an acknowledgement that coach Bruce Arians is probably being forthright when he insists that his goal is to use Ellington the “right” way. Arizona is not going to  become a “running” football team overnight.

Arians has given no indication that Ellington will get more than the 17 touches (15 carries) that he got in the Cardinals’ recent win, which raised their record to 4-4 (3-1 at home) and within one game of the NFC’s last wild-card spot as of Oct. 29. Instead, he’s more inclined to continue to try getting the ball to Ellington “in space” and letting his speed take over as he had done throughout the first seven weeks, when Ellington averaged just under seven touches per game. While that number is likely to increase based on his performance against Atlanta, expect Arians to play-call by mixing in Ellington at what he believes is the appropriate time.

Without the services of Mendenhall this week, Arians had little choice but to use Ellington as the featured back, calling his number on six of the game’s first 12 plays. He netted all of 31 yards (22 on one carry alone). While he would average an insane 10.3 yards per carry on the contest (and holds a 7.7 average), Ellington would do most of his damage on a handful of plays, most notably using one block to go 80 yards untouched on a jilting scamper midway through the second quarter. Coming out from the half, Ellington would see just six more carries, making way for fellow rookie Stepfan Taylor as the game became more secure in Arizona’s favor.

With a bye in Week 9, expect Mendenhall to be the feature back when the Cardinals host the Texans Nov. 10, and for Arians to again attempt to “spell” the defense with Ellington and hope for that home-run speed to be bottled up and ready to burst. It’s the "right approach.