RUN IT BACK

How David Johnson's redemption tour with the Texans could impact Week 1

Photo Courtesy of the Houston Texans

Dressed in full pads, David Johnson's 2019 season ended with him watching his Arizona Cardinals succumb to the Los Angeles Rams in a Week 17 defeat. For two teams who were headed straight to Cancún at the conclusion of the final whistle, the Rams last home game inside Coliseum Field held the only significant meaning to the contest. Three months later, the game would hold another.

After he did not receive a single carry during the 31-24 loss to Los Angeles, the Cardinals cut ties with Johnson in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Texans in March. Arizona sent the 28-year-old tailback and two draft picks to Houston in exchange for All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick.

In hindsight, the Cardinals' decision to part ways with Johnson was an inevitable choice.

He lost his starting spot to Kenyan Drake mid-way through the season and ended the year with 47 yards (2.6 AVG) on 18 attempts in his final six games in Arizona. October 13 marked the last time Johnson received more than 12 carries, during a Week 6 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Perhaps a change of scenery is what Johnson needs to reclaim his role as one of the league's best running backs. Injuries and lack of production since his All-Pro performance in 2016 resulted in little to no fanfare with his arrival in Houston. And a season playing behind the fourth-worst run-blocking line, per Pro Football Focus, did not help Johnson ease what he described as the "most frustrated year of his career."

Determined to "prove the doubters wrong," Johnson's road to redemption has a chance to get off to an exceptional start, when the Texans open their 2020 season against the Chiefs, Thursday night, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.

"I think I've always had pressure since 2016," Johnson told a group of reporters via Zoom conference in early-August. I like the pressure. It makes me want to be better. It makes me want to compete more and do everything I can to prove the doubters [wrong] or want to make [Bill] O'Brien look good and want to make this organization look good. I'm excited about this season, and I can't wait for it to officially get going."

The one major flaw that has hindered the Chiefs from becoming a perfect team is their inability to stop the run. Last season, Kansas City gave up a total of 2,051 rushing yard (128.2 YDS) — seventh-most in the league. Ten times the Chiefs allowed their opponents to rush over 100 yards during the regular season — which included the Texans, who recorded 192 yards during their Week 6 victory in Kansas City. Carlos Hyde — whose production Johnson can emulate playing in Houston's system — led the way with 116 yards on 26 carries.

Although it's still a daunting task, it's no secret that the best way to beat the Chiefs is by attacking them on the ground. Houston's Offensive Coordinator, Tim Kelly, said on Sunday that if they need to run the ball to win the game, then they have the ability to do that. Based on Kelly's statement, Johnson will play an integral part in Houston's attempt to exploit Kansas City's Achilles heel in his Texans debut.

"He's a special back," Texans' center Nick Martin said. "There's no doubt about it. He's so big, but he finds a hole and he hits it hard and he finds a way to somehow get skinny through that hole and burst out. We're very excited to have him behind us and block for him and finish and let him really just do his thing back there."

Even in a down year, Johnson proved he can still be a productive player coming out of the backfield when given a consistent amount of touches. In his best game of the season, DJ recorded a season-high 91 rushing yards in the Cardinals' 26-23 victory over the Bengals.

The video clip above demonstrates that Johnson still possesses the same explosiveness that led to his first 1,000-yard season (1,239) in 2016. It's the prime example of what the Texans can expect from DJ when given a suitable amount of touches. On this particular Sunday afternoon, Johnson received 17 touches — his second-most of the 2019 season.

The Chiefs have already experienced their fair share of struggles playing against the Memphis native. Despite a Cardinals' loss in 2018, Johnson ran for 98 yards and a touchdown on just 21 carries. A duplicate performance on Thursday would not only improve the Texans' chances of opening their season with a win, but a successful first stop on the David Johnson Redemption World Tour.

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Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After dropping the middle game to the Rangers to split the first two games, the Astros looked for an improved offensive showing in the finale on Thursday night to take the series. Here is a rundown of the rubber game:

Final Score: Astros 2, Rangers 1.

Record: 25-25, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Framber Valdez (4-3, 3.82 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Jordan Lyles (1-5, 7.07 ERA).

Valdez another Houston pitcher to thrive against Rangers

Much like Jose Urquidy on Tuesday and Lance McCullers JR. on Wednesday, Framber Valdez put up an excellent pitching line on Thursday against the Rangers. After allowing two singles in the first and a single in the second, he would settle in and hold the Rangers to just one baserunner, which came via a walk through six frames.

He would try to get through the seventh, but after a long at-bat and one-out double, Dusty Baker would stop his night and go to the bullpen. Unfortunately, that double would end up scoring as Josh James would allow an RBI-single, charged to Valdez, before finishing the inning. Along the way, Valdez was able to ring up eleven Rangers. His final line: 6.1 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 11 K, 0 HR, 100 P.

Kyle Tucker gets the big hit of the night

Luckily, Houston was still in the lead after the Rangers' run, thanks to a big hit by Kyle Tucker back in the second inning. After Alex Bregman reached base on a walk to become the first runner for the Astros, Kyle Tucker would break out of his recent slump with a two-run home run, putting Houston ahead 2-0 at the time.

Jordan Lyles was otherwise handling the Astros just like Kyle Gibson the night prior, who threw a complete-game shutout. Other than the Tucker homer, Lyles allowed another hit in the second and one in the third before retiring the next 12 Astros in order before an error in the seventh broke that streak, giving Houston their first baserunner since two outs in the third.

Houston takes the series and moves back up to .500

Josh James returned to the mound to start the eighth, and he would get a 1-2-3 inning against the top of Texas' lineup, including back-to-back strikeouts to end it. After another scoreless inning by Houston at the plate, that would set up a save opportunity in the top of the ninth. The opportunity would go to Brooks Raley, and he would notch the save with a scoreless inning, giving Houston the series and moving them back up to .500 at 25-25.

Up Next: The Astros' final three regular-season games played at Minute Maid Park in 2020 are this weekend in a series against the Diamondbacks. In Friday's 7:10 PM opener, Zack Greinke (3-2, 3.77 ERA) will be on the mound for Houston while Zac Gallen (1-2, 3.15 ERA) will be the starter for Arizona.

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