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Four Downs: Why Browns RBs breakout days as WRs is promising for offense

1. The importance of Duke Johnson, Isaiah Crowell in Cleveland's passing attack

When the New York Jets ran for 207 yards early Sunday morning against the Dolphins, they truly turned back the clock. At that point, three teams in the NFL hadn't even reached that number of rushing yards through three games.

Rushing performances like that simply aren't that common in the NFL as they used to be. Take into consideration there is just one running back, Chris Ivory of the Jets, who is averaging more than 100 yards per game, and that's been aided by the fact he missed a week with an injury.

On the flip side, just five teams in the NFL are averaging fewer than 200 yards passing per game. If the Browns' current average of 256 passing yards per game held steady until the end of the season, it'd be a franchise record. And that total is only good for ninth in the NFL.

Never before has the NFL seen this kind of production through the air, and the position that's perhaps been most impacted by this resurgence is running back. Simply put, there isn't as much room for a one-dimensional ball-carrier in today's offenses. Even for the ones that do, it's hard for that kind of player to have a major impact every single week, especially if their team falls behind by multiple scores. They're often a part of a two- or three-man committee because of their inability to be on the field for all three downs.

That's a long way of saying why it was so encouraging to see both Duke Johnson Jr. and Isaiah Crowell make significant contributions in the passing game Sunday against the Chargers, and why the Browns hope it can continue against a schedule that features plenty of teams capable of limiting what they do in the run game.

The promise was there from the day John DeFilippo was hired as offensive coordinator. The Browns needed to get more out of their running backs in the passing game, especially within a scheme that is built around taking the pressure off the quarterback. Some of Josh McCown's easiest throws Sunday were his most productive, as Johnson and Crowell each took short passes and turned them into big gains.

For some perspective, the combined 147 receiving yards Sunday from Johnson and Crowell was just 64 shy of what Browns running backs contributed the entire 2014 season.

"I think that was a missing part of our offense that we are very pleased with where that is," Browns coach Mike Pettine said Monday.

Johnson entered the league with the reputation of making plays as a pass-catcher. He proved that he's already advanced for a running back in that department when he not only corralled a 34-yard, over-the-shoulders touchdown pass from McCown, but also tapped his toes inside the white lines to make sure it counted. The key is sustaining it and building off a breakout performance as the schedule toughens and the grind of the NFL wears on the rookie.

Coaches have said Crowell, at times, has looked unnatural as a receiver, but he's clearly working on it. In his breakout freshman season at Georgia, Crowell caught just eight passes.

But his 52-yard reception Sunday was everything and more the Browns want to see from their second-year running back, who looked fast in the open field and powerful when he broke multiple tackles down the sidelines.

"They showed they're versatile and they can do both," tight end Gary Barnidge said. "I know people think, 'Oh, one guy can run the ball and the other guy is more of a scat guy who can run around and catch the ball.' They showed they both can do the same thing."

McCown's ability to spread the field and distribute the ball to a wide variety of receivers makes the rise of Johnson and Crowell in the passing game all that more important. Once teams scheme to limit their opportunities, others will benefit across the field.

"Every game is different and things play out differently, but I do feel like it gives us confidence that when we call plays to know that sometimes it might not be the best; you might not hit it on the head with the coverage matching the route that you have going on, but you know what? You chuck it down underneath and those guys can make plays," McCown said. "To see those guys emerge in that area just helps round out our passing game even more, and that's a good thing."


2. Kicking it

The Browns are one of just nine teams that are perfect on the season with their attempted field goals and extra points. Of those nine teams, only the Seahawks and Broncos have attempted more field goals than the seven Travis Coons has kicked.

When Pettine praised Coons on Monday, he didn't limit it to just his success on field goals and extra points. One of the major determining factors used by coaches to pick Coons over Carey Spear during the preseason was what they saw from Coons on kickoffs, and he's continued to display that aspect of his game through the first four games. The Browns have had just eight of Coons' kicks returned, and the longest went for 35 yards.


3. Snap watch

Some interesting takeaways from Sunday's snap counts:

  • Because of the injury to Craig Robertson, second-year inside linebacker Christian Kirksey joined Donte Whitner as the only two defensive players to be on the field for all 65 snaps Sunday.
  • Barnidge played 87 percent of Sunday's snaps, the most by any non-offensive lineman and quarterback on the offense.
  • Johnson started and played 43 snaps while Crowell was on the field for 26. The Browns ran 71 offensive plays.
    The Browns used rookie offensive lineman Cameron Erving twice as a jumbo tight end.
  • Because of Joe Haden's injury, special teams ace Johnson Bademosi played 41 snaps at defensive back. "He played fairly well," Pettine said. "He did some really good things. Here is a guy that is a core special teamer that gets a lot of scout team reps, does not get a lot of reps with the starting defense; he will take some reps with the twos. He did some good things."
  • Danny Shelton and Jamie Meder split their snaps almost evenly at nose tackle, with Shelton playing 27 and Meder playing 25.

4. Stat of the week

The Browns' quarterback rating of 98.8 is the highest the team's had through its first four games since it returned in 1999 and is tied for the fourth-best in franchise history.

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