Cardinals' run game sees boost as Darren Fells plays more

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Sometimes what looks like a coincidence isn't a coincidence at all.

Case in point: As tight end Darren Fells' snaps have increased the last two games, so have the Arizona Cardinals' rushing yards.

Before Week 14, Fells played a combined 52 snaps this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and Arizona averaged 69 rushing yards per game. When he played 41 snaps in a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14, Arizona ran for 141 yards. A few days later in St. Louis, Fells played 44 snaps and the Cardinals ran for 143.

"I think there's a correlation, yeah, between him blocking the edge with his big body and helping us maintain the line of scrimmage and not have it come back at us," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

There were other factors involved in the Cardinals having their two best rushing games of the season, like Arizona committing more to the run game, a new rotation in the backfield of Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor in place of the injured Andre Ellington, and changes on the offensive line with Jonathan Cooper getting the start as the guards were shuffled with Paul Fanaika out.

Sometimes, it's as simple as having just the right combination. While Fells' contributions may fall anywhere on that list, it's tough to ignore the impact of the 6-foot-7, 281-pound former power forward.

"Obvioulsy, Rob [Housler] and John [Carlson] are decent blockers but basically when you got a [former] basketball [player]/tight end [and] offensive lineman in there at tight end, it's a good deal," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "He can catch. He can protect and also he can block, but just having that big frame in there versus those defensive ends is huge, especially when you're playing a 4-3 team like this one."

With him controlling the edges, Arizona has been able to run better inside.

In weeks 1-13, including all 52 of Fells' snaps, Arizona averaged 2.7 yards per carry in between the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

With Fells on the field in Weeks 14 and 15, Arizona has averaged 4.48 yards per carry inside.

"As big as he is -- he' 6-7, 280 pounds -- it's like a 6-7, 330-pound offensive tackle at times," tight ends coach Rick Christophel said. "The edge becomes longer. He's not a bad athlete, which helps, and he keeps learning every week."

Fells' road to the NFL took an international detour.

He never played college football, trading in scholarship offers from UCLA, Arizona State and Washington, among others, to play basketball at UC-Irvine. From California, his career took him to Belgium, Finland, Mexico and Argentina. After tiring of the finesse style of European basketball, Fells yearned for the weight room and more -- any -- physical contact.

He landed on the Cardinals practice squad last October as a project for Christophel but was too raw to get called up to the active roster. He was learning how to become an NFL tight end without having played since high school. After last season, Fells began making noticeable progress.

"I think he grew a lot from OTAs through training camp," Christophel said. "What I mean by that, he started to understand his role in the offense and what he had to do. With a basketball player's background, a lot of times those guys envision [themselves] sometimes as more as pass catchers but he's taught himself to be a better blocker."

Fells can tell his footwork and hand placement has improved since training camp, but he's learned the most important lesson about blocking for the run: hit before you get hit. Even though right tackle Bobby Massie said he doesn't usually know when Fells is on the field, he's seen the tight end use his size to move defenders out of holes, creating space for Williams and Taylor.

The work Christophel has put in with Fells is finally paying off and Arizona's running game is the biggest benefactor.

"He's a huge body out there at tight end so that's the thing that helps," Massie said. "He's not just a basketball player anymore. He can play football, too. I think that's the thing that clicked in his mind. He's a football player now."