Coming into the season, it was expected that Duke Johnson was going to be used in a variety of ways: out of the slot, in the backfield, all over the field to get more usage out of an electric player. After a mixed bag of a preseason, one that saw him get more yards on the ground than through the air, Johnson was the No. 2 running back on the depth chart in Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. What happened in the game, usage and production wise, was not what you usually see from running backs.
Getting Johnson more snaps isn’t the issue. With Isaiah Crowell as the starting running back, moving Johnson to the slot was a smart move by head coach Hue Jackson and assistant head coach, offensive coordinator Al Saunders. Having both of those playmakers on the field at the same time will give defensive coordinators fits in who is getting the ball. Not to mention it helps fill a need on the outside, where Corey Coleman seems to be the only player worthy of a starting job currently. The designation of Johnson as the second running back is where some of the issues may lie ahead in weeks to come.
Johnson was on the field for 51 of the 62 snaps (75.76% if you like percentages more) the Browns offense took. However, Johnson worked almost entirely out of the slot.
Sign of things to come?
In 51 snaps vs PIT, #Browns RB Duke Johnson lined up at slot receiver 46 times and not once in the backfield.
— PFF CLV Browns (@PFF_Cleveland) September 11, 2017
This usage of Johnson is not exactly a problem if Crowell is able to move the ball on the ground and/or Johnson is getting balls thrown his way for plus yardage, but with only 33 yards on 17 carries, defenses were not giving up any space to The Crow, no matter how much rookie quarterback Deshone Kizer fed him. Most of this could be explained by the lack of cohesiveness from the offensive line. When asked about whether the running game struggles were an issue with the offense or a byproduct of facing a good defense, Jackson was quoted as saying, “It is a combination of both. I think a little bit was what they were doing. I think sometimes it was what we were doing and I think we just have to be a little bit more determined to do it. I think as the game went on, we had to make some other plays. In this league – I think we all get it – to score, you have to be able throw the ball. We can say what we want. I want to run the ball as bad as anybody, I think you guys saw that in the first half, but also, I have to put our players in position to win and I think what we have to do is we have to go back. We took a unit yesterday that played together for the first time. All five guys playing together. That was (OL) Joel Bitonio’s coming out party – he finally played a whole game – next to (OL) Joe Thomas, who finally played a whole game and then a center (JC Tretter) who is new and a right guard (Kevin Zeitler) who is new and a right tackle (Shon Coleman) who is new. I know everybody wants to jump on the running game right quickly, but that is kind of the nuts and bolts of who we are and that might take a little time, but I suspect that it is going to turn the corner here real quickly. We just have to stay after it.”
The argument to make here is, if Johnson is going to be called a running back, and the goal is to get explosiveness out of him, why not try him behind the line? Even though he was on the field for 51 snaps, Johnson was only targeted five times by passes, catching two for 20 yards. He did not attempt a single rush. The goal here is not to drum up a controversy. I have been a big proponent of Crowell and will continue to think this was just not a good first opponent for him and the offensive line.
What does this all mean? We will continue to monitor Johnson’s usage here at WFNY, but expect more of the same. Johnson will continue to be called the number two running back with Matthew Dayes the third on the depth chart even though you may not see Johnson line up in the backfield at all. Jackson indicated it will depend on the opponent when asked if Johnson was a wide receiver now. “No, that was yesterday. That was that plan for that game, and it will change as we go. Duke is a very valuable member of our offensive football team in both phases – in the pass game and the run game.”
Isaiah Crowell will continue to get the bulk of the carries and, inevitably, the Browns will head into Week 2 with more of a focus on running the ball against the Baltimore Ravens. Maybe Duke Johnson will even get a carry.