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D'Ernest Johnson ends 2021 season with another display of dependability

Johnson rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown and pushed the Browns to a win in the final game of their season

D'Ernest Johnson smiled and waited to hear Case Keenum finish his question.

Johnson was sitting to the left of Keenum as the two conducted their postgame press conferences Sunday in FirstEnergy Stadium after the Browns won 21-16 over the Bengals, and Keenum was jumping in with a question of his own. Johnson rushed for 123 yards and scored one of the Browns' three touchdowns just one day after he was activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Keenum had a legitimate question to ask Johnson about his performance — particularly, a nine-play sequence in the fourth quarter on the Browns' final touchdown drive.

"I have a question for DJ," Keenum said. "I think we handed it to him nine times in a row … How did that feel? Because you did not even seem tired to me after the eighth handoff in a row? How did you come in after a week like this and get that done?"

Keenum and Johnson both shared a laugh before Johnson gave a quick answer. 

"I was just doing little things on the side," Johnson said. "I'm well-rested, and my body felt good."

Check out photos of the Browns against the Bengals in Week 18

The little things — and Johnson's never-ending urge to make the most of any opportunities that come his way — prepared Johnson for one final exclamation point to his best NFL season. Those nine consecutive carries, which moved the offense 36 yards into Bengals territory, helped the Browns add the finishing touch to their win and positioned RB Demetric Felton to score on a 10-yard touchdown catch one play after Johnson's ninth carry.

Johnson's sequence was one of the most notable efforts of the day and highlighted everything he meant to Cleveland in 2021: a reliable player who might've been in a backup role but always prepared as though he were a starter and stayed ready for the call.

Week 18 was Johnson's biggest call yet. His 25 carries Sunday were the most of his three-year career, and no other Browns player accumulated more yards than him as Cleveland attempted to end the year on a high note against a divisional rival.

"D'Ernest comes in off the couch [from the reserve/COVID-19 list this past week] and performs — because that's what he does," Stefanski said. "He did a really nice job fighting for extra yards. I'm not surprised. Just a very, very dependable player."

The Browns turned to Johnson at several points of the season when RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were unavailable due to COVID-19 protocols or injuries. Chubb was active for Sunday, the final game of the Browns' season, but Hunt remained sidelined and missed his fourth consecutive game with an ankle injury.

With the Browns no longer in playoff contention, they opted to give Johnson the bulk of the carries and power an offense that was piloted by Keenum, who started in place of Baker Mayfield as Mayfield awaits offseason surgery for his shoulder injury. 

Johnson never looked out of place in the role and created several highlight-reel runs with quick cuts and impressive burst. His lone touchdown, a 4-yard carry in the first quarter, pushed the Browns to a 14-0 lead and created some breathing space for Cleveland to finish the afternoon — and season — on a much-needed positive note.

Johnson didn't stop there, though, as he continued to fight for every yard and first down and secure the second 100-yard game of his career. His first game in that category came in Week 7, when he was given the starting nod again with Keenum at QB and rushed for 146 yards to jolt the Browns to another win.

"I will ride with this guy any day," Keenum said. "He's a worker. He sat at home all week, showed up for work and brought it. It was impressive to watch. I couldn't be more proud and happy for this dude."

Johnson said he stayed in shape during his short bout with COVID-19 through workouts at home and conducted the same diligent preparation that has kept him ready for opportunities throughout his entire career. No season of that career was better for Johnson than 2021 — he ended it with 534 rushing yards and three touchdowns, numbers that show the value Johnson had in a talented running back room where snaps were hard to find behind Chubb and Hunt.

At no point Sunday did the Browns rely on Johnson more than his nine-carry sequence in the fourth quarter. Cleveland was looking to drain the clock while still hoping to maintain possession by picking up first downs and finding an opportunity to add to their lead.

It's the same kind of work the Browns typically feel confident in giving to Chubb and Hunt, and that confidence didn't lessen at all with Johnson — why should it?

He's pulled through for them at several points of 2021 and deserved a shot to do it again in the final regular season game. The call came, and Johnson answered it in the same fashion he's always met in a Browns uniform.

With dominance and consistency.

"Every opportunity, I try to take advantage of it," he said, "and that's what I did at the end of the day."

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