In the days between the Browns' loss to Arizona and their trip to Cincinnati, John DeFilippo approached Mike Pettine with a realization.
The Browns' three-man rotation at running back wasn't getting the production DeFilippo envisioned when Robert Turbin was first inserted into the group alongside Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. In DeFilippo's eyes, less could ultimately be more.
"It is hard," DeFilippo said of the three-man rotation. "I went to Coach (Head Coach Mike Pettine) and said I think it is the best thing for our football team if we rolled with two backs."
The immediate results were some of the best of the season.
Crowell ran for 42 yards on nine carries and hauled in two passes for 19 yards in last week's first half. Johnson ran three times for no yards, but made two of the biggest plays in the passing game, hauling in a 26-yard pass to kick start a Browns touchdown drive and corralling the 12-yard touchdown throw from Duke Johnson Jr. at the end of it.
The second half, though, was a different story. Johnson, in particular, didn't touch the ball for a second straight second half. That's something DeFilippo and Pettine would like to change as soon as Sunday against the Steelers.
"There have been some inconsistencies there, and some of it has been having the right (personnel)," Pettine said. "From a personnel grouping standpoint, I know Flip has had some plays where he wanted to have him out there, and we felt after games that we needed to use him more. I think the more he touches the ball, the more comfortable he will become.
"He has certainly shown in his rookie year that it is not too big for him and he can be very productive."
Though his season-high for rushing yards is just 43, Johnson is making his biggest impact as a pass-catcher. Since he made his first catch Week 3 against the Raiders, he's been one of the Browns' most consistent receivers, hauling in 35 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns. Since his breakout performance Week 4, when he caught nine passes for 85 yards and a touchdown at San Diego, Johnson has averaged 56 receiving yards per game.
Essentially, he's been as advertised since the Browns talked up his versatility after selecting him in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Now, the focus centers on getting him the ball consistently over the course of the game rather than spurts.
"There are a lot of graduate level details that he needs to get cleaned up, but there is no substitute for going out there and playing and experiencing the live game reps," Pettine said. "We are very pleased with where Duke is. I would agree he needs to be a big part of what we do, both run and pass."
The Steelers won't be caught by surprise if Johnson's role grows before their eyes at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin attended Johnson's Pro Day at Miami earlier this year and came away impressed with his versatility.
"I'm not surprised by some of the things he's been able to do," Tomlin said. "I think it was quite evident for those of us who were on hand at his pro day."