Something about the second half of the season brings out the best in running back Duke Johnson.
Last year, his best as a pro, Johnson picked up 10 or more touches in seven of the team’s final nine games. That played a big part in Johnson posting one of the most impressive receiving stat lines among NFL running backs -- 74 receptions, 693 yards, three touchdowns.
The Browns are hoping that sort of trend repeats itself in 2018. Week 9 against the Chiefs was one heck of a start.
Johnson caught nine passes -- he had a combined 10 catches in the previous three games -- for 78 yards -- a season-high that more than doubled his output in all but two games this year -- and his first two touchdowns of 2018.
His production was a big reason why the Browns came away optimistic about the direction of their offense under new offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens.
“It was good to see that with Duke,” coach Gregg Williams said. “Just like what we have talked about with other people, I think he can do more and he will. He had a good fire about him, and he will continue to improve too. We need him to improve.”
The opportunities for Johnson to show off his skill set definitely improved against the Chiefs, as he was targeted early and often with short passes that allowed him to operate with plenty of space. It also made things easier for rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, who took a number of hard hits in previous weeks as he waited for longer developing routes to open up his downfield targets.
Johnson caught just three of his passes Sunday beyond the line of scrimmage. Two of those were just 1 yard ahead of it, and both went for touchdowns.
“Just going out there and showing what I am capable of doing. Basically, just showing the reason why I am here,” Johnson said. “It was a great showing for myself but not so much for the team, and we are about team here. Should have gotten the win. That is what was most important.”
Even as his opportunities dwindled throughout the first half of the season, Johnson maintained a team-first approach. He didn’t pout or complain, instead shifting his focus toward improving as a blocker.
Johnson was adamant the offense needed to improve its production in the first half, specifically the first quarter. Cleveland didn’t get more than a field goal in the first quarter Sunday, but it found the end zone twice in the second quarter with Johnson as a focal point in the offensive attack.
Johnson saw it as a chain reaction of sorts.
“I guess give the other team someone to look at and spy on. It just opens for everyone else,” Johnson said. “I think that Nick Chubb went out and ran the ball very well. It opened up play action. It opened up a lot for this team. That is just something that I try to go out and do.”
Chubb and Johnson combined for 176 yards on the ground and through the air. A tandem after opening the season as a trio with veteran Carlos Hyde, Chubb and Johnson are two of Cleveland’s top playmakers, and Mayfield said he’s at his best when the team’s top playmakers have the ball in their hands.
“Duke made a bunch of plays for us,” Mayfield said. “Obviously, he is one of our playmakers. Whenever we get a chance to get him going … those are the types of plays we expect him to have. That is what he is capable of. That is what he has shown time in and time out when you get him involved that much. We have to continue to build on that.”