The Cardinals running game was supposed to take a major step forward in 2010 but that didn't happen. Arizona's rushing attack regressed in large part due to a lack of production through the air and inconsistent play along the offensive line.
Despite the obvious shortcoming above, part of the blame must also be placed on the running backs.
Tim Hightower continues to hold onto the starting job and when he wasn't fighting ball security issues, Hightower was an explosive and effective runner. The logical thinking was that Hightower, a fifth-round draft pick in 2008, was keeping the seat warm for 2009 first-round pick Beanie Wells. Wells, however, hasn't panned out thus far and his been quite a disappointment following a less than stellar sophomore campaign.
While Hightower racked up nearly five yards per carry a year ago, Wells lacked the speed and agility to find running lanes on the ground. Wells appeared to be heavy footed, and while he experienced great success in college at Ohio St., his running style hasn't translated on a consistent basis at the NFL level.
Wells had a solid rookie campaign (793 yards rushing, 7 TDs) but was plagued by setbacks in 2010, most notably a knee injury that the team covered up for weeks. It may have been due to the torn meniscus suffered in his right knee, but Wells looked little like the player he was during his rookie year. It's obvious when a runner is a step slow, and that's exactly what Wells was, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry.
Whether or not Wells can regain his form next year is still to be determined but if he's unable his time in the desert could be limited.
It appears that Wells is caught in a no man's land as a runner. He's not quite powerful enough to be a Shonn Greene type of runner and certainly doesn't have the quickness to rival even his own teammate in Hightower. Wells and the Cardinals coaching staff must make a dedicated effort to identify what running style can bring the former Buckeye star the most success and fine tune it during the offseason.
The ever so valuable LaRod Stephens-Howling is also in the mix at running back but can't be counted on for extended periods of time. Stephens-Howling is a tremendous weapon out of the backfield and on special teams, but his stature and style of play makes him prone to injuries, something he dealt with throughout the 2010 season.
With Stephens-Howling and Wells both limited in their contributions, look for Hightower to continue to be the running back of choice in Arizona. The only knock on Hightower has been his bouts with fumbling, but that's been a correctable area for players in the past. Hightower can hold up as a blocker and is able to catch balls out of the backfield, making him a potential every-down running back.
That said, the main storyline for the Cardinals running game next year – despite the continued progression of Hightower – will be Wells. The anticipation of him breaking out as one of the top backs in the NFL was thought to begin in 2010 but the Cardinals would be satisfied with him growing into a power runner to complement Hightower, at least for the time being.
A detailed look at Arizona's needs heading into the offseason and a unit-by-unit breakdown…