It’s still a bit early to draw any conclusions, but from what fans saw Sunday from Browns rookie running back Duke Johnson Jr., the future of the club’s running game is bright.
The youngster from Miami of Florida gives the Cleveland ground game a dimension it hasn’t for a long time. He is more than just a guy who lugs the ball from time to time.
Johnson, the youngest player on the roster, also has a great feel for the passing game, both long and short, and proved that over and over in Sunday’s loss to the San Diego Chargers. It’s the kind of stuff you can’t teach at an early age. Either you have it or you don’t. He does.
Get used to seeing offensive coordinator John DeFilippo use his prize rookie all over the field. Sometimes, he’ll be lined up in an offset I. Other times, you might see him in the slot or flanked wide.
Once word about Johnson spreads around the National Football League, it will eventually be a case for opposing defenses to identify where Johnson is in the formation. Against the Chargers, he caught his 28-yard scoring pass from Josh McCown after lining up in the left slot.
His ability to make himself available for checkdown passes adds another bullet to McCown’s gun belt and the quarterback took full advantage against the Chargers, often dumping the ball just as he was getting hit.
Johnson’s quick feet, which always seem to be moving, enable him to make chicken salad out of chicken feces. The 5-9, 205-pounder is difficult to pin down because he is always a moving target.
He was hemmed in a couple of times by the Chargers Sunday and turned a potential negative play into something positive. On the first play of the Browns’ third series of the game, he was trapped behind the line of scrimmage for a potential five-yard loss, but kept his feet moving, somehow wiggled free and delivered a three-yard gain.
On the third play of the final first-half possession, he caught a checkdown pass on a third-and-2, shook of a tackle at the line of scrimmage and picked up the first down with a three-yard gain.
It’s little things like that that often go unnoticed or unappreciated, but you can bet DeFilippo took notice. Johnson got 17 touches – watch that total rise significantly in the weeks ahead – that produced 116 yards. When you have a talent like Johnson, it should not be wasted.
After watching Cleveland running backs become almost non-existent in the passing game the last couple of seasons, it is refreshing to see Johnson give opposing defenses something else to think about when Cleveland has the ball. When he is in the game, there is nothing one dimensional about the Browns’ attack.
Johnson also has a knack for finding soft spots in opposing defenses, which has to be comforting to McCown, whose flirtations with possible sacks was becoming a concern due to holding on to the ball too long.
It will be interesting to see how long it takes DeFilippo to incorporate Johnson into the between-the-tackles running game. Right now, that job belongs to Isaiah Crowell, who enjoyed modest success against the Chargers.
And the chances of Johnson becoming an every-down back, as he was at Miami? Right now, not very high. But if he continues to improve on what we saw in San Diego Sunday, the likelihood of that changing is quite high.
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There is one play in the Browns’ playbook that needs to be addressed in a hurry. It is a staple called the screen pass. Most, if not all, NFL teams have screen plays in their playbooks.
The Browns shouldn’t.
Why not? One look at how they execute one of the most basic plays of an offense and you would understand the best move the Browns can make is to remove those plays from the playbook and have a bonfire.
Successful screen plays are the result of good acting and exquisite timing, neither of which the Browns can come even close to providing. The last time the Browns ran a successful screen play was . . . was . . . hmmmm . . . I can’t even remember.
It seems the Cleveland offensive line is incapable of (a) acting as though it is pass blocking and then (b) drifting out into the flat in time to afford the ball carrier a screen to pick up significant yards. This group of offensive linemen doesn’t seem to be athletic enough to get into position in the flat in time to make a play.
It tried on a few occasions against the Chargers, but often was usually late to the spot or out of position to make a play. So why even bother when the odds of being successful are practically nil? Why not run plays that actually work?
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If there is one aspect of the defense that has been consistent this season, it has been its awfulness (yep, there’s such a word), its inability to make plays when they are most needed.
Take the Chargers loss, for example. The team received an emotional lift when the offense tied the game at 27-27 with 2:09 left in regulation. All the club needed was one stop, one measly stop for a change to send the game into overtime.
The defense, which belches 411 yards a game, ole’d the San Diego offense with only a token challenge or two. Never in the process did it force a third down until the Chargers had run down the clock and maneuvered the ball to the center of the field to set up Josh Lambo’s winning field goal with no time left.
No one stepped up to make a play. And therein lies this team’s biggest problem. They either don’t know what it takes to play clutch football or don’t know how. If it’s the latter, that’s a big problem. Another problem is lack of a take-charge guy. Maybe it’s time for Mike Pettine to reintroduce himself to that side of the ball.
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It appears the Browns made the correct decision when they anointed Travis Coons as their placekicking specialist. Coons, who beat out Mayfield High School graduate Carey Spear for the job, kept the Browns in the game with four field goals against the Chargers. He is perfect on seven attempts this season.
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Gary Barnidge has been a pleasant revelation in the Cleveland passing game. The veteran tight end, known more for his blocking than receiving, is tied with Travis Benjamin for the team lead in catches with 16. His 235 yards rank second on the club, as do his two touchdown receptions. He has become a valuable weapon in McCown’s arsenal, making Jordan Cameron’s defection to Miami less painful at least for the time being.
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Notebook: Justin Gilbert quietly has become the Browns’ main kickoff return man. While he seems lost as a cornerback, he appears much very comfortable returning kicks. He returned three against the Chargers for 110 yards, including a 38-yarder. . . . Why in the world has defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil taken away what Paul Kruger does best, which is rush the passer? Dropping back into pass coverage negates why the club signed Kruger in the first place. Last season’s sack leader (by far) has just half a sack this season. . . . In case you missed it, silent Dwayne Bowe was in long enough to have one pass thrown his way in San Diego. It was one of McCown’s nine incompletions. . . . Rookie defensive tackle Xavier Cooper registered his first sack of the season. . . . The Browns intercepted 21 passes last season. This season, they are stuck on one.