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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The Astros will have some new rules to adjust to in 2023. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

If you are savvy enough to read next week’s column, you will be doing so with spring training underway in Florida and Arizona. Hip, hip, hooray! Astros pitchers and catchers have their first workout scheduled for next Thursday, with the full squad due early the following week ahead of games starting February 25. Spring training baseball is not meant to be exciting, but the major rules changes that will take effect this season will be in full effect in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, making spring games more interesting to follow.

The biggest change is the death of infield shifts. As reminder or to get up to speed, the first and second baseman must now always be aligned on the first base side of second while the shortstop and third baseman must both be on the third base side of second. Plus, all infielders must have both feet on the dirt of the infield.

There are legitimate points to be made as to why shifts should be allowed, and also why modifying the rules makes sense. I get the argument that if hitters can’t take advantage of an open side of the infield, shame on them. However, taking advantage of a shift is not as easy as it looks.

The best argument against shifts is that they clearly more penalized left-handed hitters. You think Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will miss losing some hits on balls smashed on one hop 30 or 40 feet into the outfield only to have a second baseman make the play? If once every other week Tuck or Yordan picks up a hit that the shift would have taken away, over 500 at bats, that’s about a 25 point difference in batting average. Defenses couldn’t shift in the same fashion against right-handed hitters because unless the batter/runner has Martin Maldonado or Albert Pujols level (non)speed, throwing guys out at first from 30 or 40 feet out in left field is not viable.

Welcome the pitch clock. There will be griping from some pitchers and hitters. Suck it up buttercups! Adapt or die. In the minor leagues the pitch clock knocked off 20-25 minutes from the average game length. The average big league game should not take more than three hours. For darn sure a 3-1 or 4-2 game shouldn’t take more than three hours.

With no runners on base a pitcher has 15 seconds from when he gets the ball to start his motion, with runner(s) on base 20 seconds. Failure to comply is an automatic ball. It’s called the pitch clock but batters are on notice too. There is simply no need for batters to be stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the meaning of life every pitch or two. Batters not in the box and ready when the clock gets down to eight seconds get an automatic strike. There are several exceptions, such as a batter gets one timeout per plate appearance,

The bases themselves are 20 percent larger. Instead of 15 inches square they are now 18 inches square which serves a couple of purposes. There will be a bit more space for infielders to avoid baserunners at the bags. That’s sensible. We’ve all heard “Baseball is a game of inches.” Legendary General Manager Branch Rickey is credited with coining the phrase. Rickey is also the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, and the guy who basically invented the farm system.

Anyway, back to game of inches. The larger bases shorten the distance between first and second, and second and third base, by four and a half inches. A massive change it is not, but a meaningful change it is. Think of the close calls on stolen base attempts, or a runner going from first to third on a single. It’s not mastering advanced calculus to get that a shorter distance between bases makes it easier to successfully get to the next one. Anything that increases the value of speed in the game is a good thing.

Base stealing will also be impacted by the new pickoff limitations rule. Say Jose Altuve leads off with a single. Up comes Jeremy Pena. The pitcher gets two “disengagements” during Pena’s at bat. Pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber both count as “disengagement.” A third disengagement not resulting in a pickoff is an automatic balk. Does Altuve take a huge lead to draw pickoff throws knowing that after two non-pickoffs he gets a big advantage?

Might any unintended consequences result from the rules changes? Let’s find out.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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