Since the moment they drafted him back in May, the Cleveland Browns started formulating plans for their explosive running back Duke Johnson Jr.
Against San Diego, the third-round pick proved his worth in the offense, giving the Chargers fits on nine catches, 85 yards and one touchdown.
Eight of those catches came in the first half, forcing the San Diego defense to crumple up their defensive script and keep a permanent eye on Johnson's whereabouts.
"It's one of the reasons why I'm here – I bring a different element to the passing game," Johnson said in the visitor's locker room after a last-second 30-27 defeat. "When we get in trouble, we can dink and dunk to get yards."
"He certainly will be a big part of our plans moving forward," coach Mike Pettine said. "That's a pretty good glimpse of how we'll be using him."
You won't find many slicker first touchdown catches in the NFL than Johnson's 34-yarder in the second quarter.
Standing in the shotgun, quarterback Josh McCown tapped his foot on the turf, signaling Johnson out of the backfield to split all the way toward the left sideline. Chargers sixth-year linebacker Donald Butler would be marking Cleveland's running back all alone on an island.
"We got the matchup we were looking for, but the only thing was, how soon could we throw it?" Johnson said.
Johnson's route? Run as fast as you can. The 5-foot-9, 210-pounder did just that, making an over-the-shoulder grab in the back left corner of the end zone. The big passing play looked so natural for the University of Miami alum, NFL.com dubbed the highlight video Cool Hands Duke.
"The catch Duke made on the first touchdown was one of the best catches I've seen by a running back," McCown said. "To track a deep ball like that and to catch it over his shoulder, that's not something that they get a ton of time catching. For him to do that it was just very, very impressive and really encouraging."
"Anytime you have a back that can be a first- or second-down back between the tackles, and a guy that you can also split out your No. 1 wideout and hit him on a vertical route," Pettine said, "that puts a lot of stress on a defense."
As Browns fans grumble about a loss that moved the team's record to 1-3, they can take some solace in knowing that there are young, blooming tools on this offense who could become capable of carrying the unit to a win.
With Cleveland's defense reeling against Philip Rivers and the Chargers offense, it was Johnson and Isaiah Crowell who both eclipsed 100 total yards – the first time that feat had been accomplished by two Browns running backs since 2004 (Lee Suggs and William Green). It was Travis Benjamin bringing down a career-high six receptions. It was Taylor Gabriel securing the all-important two-point conversion to tie the game.
Through four games, the offensive production hasn't been the problem – McCown is averaging 23.5 points per game in his two full starts after returning from a concussion.
And now that Johnson has flashed his potential, the Browns offense is showing they can score with some of the more potent offenses – i.e. San Diego – and exceed some limitations prognosticators piled on top of the unit before the season.