The last time D'Ernest Johnson was in the kind of spot he could be in Sunday at Gillette Stadium, he played the best game of his career.
No one has forgotten about it, either. Just three weeks ago, Johnson was thrust into the starting RB role on only a few days' notice for Thursday Night Football against the Broncos due to injuries to RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. He proceeded to rush for a career-high 146 yards and scored a touchdown on the first drive of the game, setting him up for a week-long ride of recognition around the league — both for his performance and his incredible path to the NFL.
Now, Johnson could find himself in the same role again. Chubb and Demetric Felton were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday, leaving their status for Sunday's game uncertain. Hunt (calf) has yet to be designated to return from Injured Reserve, which leaves Johnson as the next man up.
"I am just ready to go out there and just try to go 1-0 this week," he said Thursday. "That is our main focus is just going 1-0. When I get the opportunity, just try to make the most of them."
Check out exclusive photos from the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus of the Browns preparing for their Week 10 game against the New England Patriots
Johnson has — quite literally — always thrived at that, and no example over his three-year career was better than his Week 7 performance. He cut through a Broncos defense that ranked ninth in the league against the run at the time and put the rest of the league on notice that the Browns RBs room truly has no shortage of weapons.
The Patriots defense, ranked 16th against the run, isn't taking Johnson lightly.
"Their backs are that good," said Devin McCourty, a 12-year veteran safety for New England. "Not just Nick Chubb. Not just Kareem Hunt. I think everyone saw it on that Thursday night game where D'Ernest Johnson gets in there. He's a guy where the point of attack is everywhere. Whether he'll be going right, make a little cut back, and go anywhere on the field."
Even if the Patriots and other defenses will be more prepared to slow down Johnson, he isn't changing anything when it comes to his own preparation. He doesn't need to.
That's because he prepares as if he's going to take 30 carries a game each week. It doesn't matter if Chubb, Hunt or any of the other running backs are available. He wants to be ready for a start no matter how much notice he receives, which allows him to be himself whenever he's needed from the backfield.
"Just going out there and being me," Johnson said when asked about his biggest lesson from his Week 7 performance. "Just going out there and having fun. That's it."
To the surprise of no one who watched Johnson tear through opponents in Week 7, the Browns have full faith he'll be able to carry the bulk of the rushing workload in New England if necessary. He carried the ball 22 times in that game, a total that Chubb has reached just once this season, and could see a similar workload Sunday.
"It is definitely a good feeling to know that there is a guy who has been productive really every time he has touched the ball for us," offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said. "Even last week, he had some tough looks there at the end of the game when they were bringing one more than we could block, and he was making guys miss. I feel very confident he will come out and perform for us like he has in the past if he needs to."
Johnson, of course, doesn't care how many carries he receives.
He just wants to help the Browns win, and he's happy to take on any role that helps them achieve it.
"I'm just thankful for the opportunity," Johnson said. "I just have to make the most of it."