As James Conner goes, so goes the Cardinals' offense

TEMPE, Ariz. -- James Conner stood on the left hashmark, 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage, hands on his knees, awaiting the first snap of the Arizona Cardinals’ home opener on Sunday. When the ball reached his hands on an exchange from Cardinals quarterback Joshua Dobbs, Conner went to work.

He was coming off a 62-yard showing in the Cardinals’ first game of the season as the entire offense tried to figure out who it was and what it was doing. This past Sunday, though, was different.

Conner took the opening snap Sunday against the New York Giants, tried to find something in the middle of the line, but when that route was stuffed, he bounced outside for a 17-yard gain, sticking his chest out, looking at Arizona’s sideline and wide-stepping after the play.

The tone was set.

Conner dominated the next 35 minutes. He finished with 106 yards -- all but three coming before the 10-minute mark of the third quarter. It was his first 100-yard game since Week 12 of last season and just his second since Week 6 of 2020, when he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The chatter all offseason was that Arizona would be committing to the run more under new offensive coordinator Drew Petzing. Sunday was proof that Conner will be a linchpin for Arizona’s offense.

“He’s the workhorse,” coach Jonathan Gannon said. “The run game is going to go through him.”

As he went Sunday, so did the Cardinals.

And that will continue.

“He's one of our leaders,” wide receiver Zach Pascal said. “He's gonna touch the rock a lot of the times in the game. So, I guess you could say we go as he go. [If the] the running game [is] not there then we in a tough spot. So, I could say that. Yeah. That’s cool.”

The more Conner ran Sunday, the better he got.

And Arizona kept feeding him. Of his 23 carries, 18 came in the first 35 minutes of the game. His was the hot hand, said Gannon, who would like to see the other running backs get involved more, which is hard to do when Conner was on such a roll.

“You see how good he is in games when he's able to wear down opponents where he’s able to get 15, 20, 25 carries,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “And you see his workload increase, I feel like the better he is because he is able to wear down defenses, and his balance and his core is so strong that people just bounce off him.”

Petzing was good with Conner getting that many carries, but said each game will dictate the load for Conner.

The impact of Conner getting going early reverberates throughout the offense in a multiple of ways.

“It turns everybody up,” Pascal said. “It gives everybody, like, a mindset. I mean, shoot, he's about to run all over them. It's almost like a mentality, like a toughness -- a toughness mentality watching James run because he just runs hard. So, it just gives the whole sideline fuel.”

It also opens up the passing game, especially the play-action, tight end Geoff Swaim said. Dobbs was 7-for-10 for 91 yards on play-action passes Sunday and averaged 11.4 air yards per attempt, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

“That's the first rule,” Swaim said. “If you want to throw the ball, man, you have to be able to run the ball a little bit, too. So, for him being able to get going the way he did, and for the O-line, the tight ends to get movement on guys, it really opens up all the shots that are over the linebackers.”

Swaim, who’s playing with Conner for the first time, has noticed that Conner is a patient runner. He’s also the type of running back who can get the “dirty yards,” as Dobbs likes to say, and make guys miss.

“You don't always see in the runs, but the pile's moving forward,” Dobbs said. “He's getting those extra two, three, four or five yards and finishing those runs. As an offense that keeps the chains moving.

“That keeps us in second-and-manageable, third-and-manageable and keeps us on the field. The more we can get the ball in his hands, man, the more plays he's going to be able to make for us."