CLEVELAND — When the Cleveland Browns lost Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to calf injuries ahead of the Denver Broncos game, there were only two (and a hybrid) running backs at the team's disposal.
The running game has been the true identity of the Browns offense. Establish the run while spreading the ball around between the other offensive weapons in the wide receiver and tight end rooms. But with no Chubb and no Hunt—and no Baker Mayfield as he was ruled out with a shoulder injury and replaced with Case Keenum—what would the Browns backfield look like under prime-time lights?
Trust the process
Before the game, the Browns knew they'd have D'Ernest Johnson to fill in at running back, as well as hybrid back Demetric Felton. On Wednesday, the Browns elevated running back John Kelly from the practice squad to help as well.
Johnson had never started an NFL game, but since signing with the Browns in 2019 he has been preparing for that moment.
In 2018, Johnson went undrafted and was invited to the Saints' rookie minicamp but wasn't signed. With his first shot at a football career not shaking out, Johnson spent the rest of the year on a fishing boat with a friend in Key West, making money catching mahi mahi.
But while he wasn't playing, his love of football remained and he joined the Alliance of American Football in 2019. The league ended operations that same year, but Johnson got one more chance at football, signing with the Browns and impressing so much he made the 53-man roster.
Johnson has waited patiently for his moment, learning from his teammates, working on his craft and staying ready for any opportunity he could get.
"I never lost trust in the process. Coming from the fishing boat, I always dreamed of playing in the NFL, just playing in the AAF, at the same time I always dreamed of being here," Johnson said. "Just being able to just be on this team is a blessing."
A start to remember
Johnson had his first career start Thursday night with Chubb and Hunt sidelined. Heading into the game the two running backs gave Johnson some advice—"Be yourself."
"They just basically told me to be me. Don't change nothing, just be you, continue doing you. That's what got me here, and don't change nothing," Johnson said.
Taking the field Thursday night, the third play of the game saw him in the mix. And on his very first play in his very first start, Johnson took off, rushing for a 20 yard gain. That rushing attack continued all night.
With 146 rushing yards on 22 carries, and 22 receiving yards on two catches, Johnson gashed the Broncos defense and helped lead the Browns to a win they way they do best—leading with the run game.
Johnson notched his first career touchdown in the Browns' 17-14 win over the Broncos and, for lack of a better celebration, just screamed with joy when he crossed into the end zone.
"I wanted to celebrate, but I didn't know what to do man, I just yelled," Johnson laughed. "It's been a long journey and to get your first start and to get 100 yards and get a touchdown? That ain't nothing but God and I give thanks to him."
Head coach Kevin Stefanski, who rarely singles any one player out, made sure to acknowledge Johnson's performance in his opening statement following the game.
"D'Ernest Johnson to me is just a warrior. Great teammate. What's he's fought through in his career and then to go have a night like that and end it how he did on that third down I thought was just outstanding," Stefanski said.
Even over in Los Angeles, Northeast Ohio native and NBA superstar LeBron James was admiring Johnson's performance.
D’ Ernest Johnson on 1 tonight!! Love to see it! #Browns— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 22, 2021
Johnson's reaction to the shoutout was nearly as epic as his first career start.
A clear identity
With his performance Thursday, Johnson set the Browns apart as the only team in the league with three running backs notching 100 or more scrimmage yards in a game.
The Browns have one of the most dangerous backfields in the league with depth that no other team can match—which is made possible not only by the talented backs but by the strength of the offensive line.
Left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. has been fighting through an ankle injury sustained in Week 1, and after missing Sunday's game against the Cardinals, pushed hard to get back on the field Thursday. On the opposite side, right tackle Jack Conklin wasn't quite ready to return, dealing with a knee injury, and was replaced by Blake Hance.
Hance held his own against the threat of eight-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Von Miller in the first half, before Miller left with an ankle injury. Wills toughed it out himself. Wyatt Teller, Joel Bitonio and JC Tretter did what they do best and with the help of a more healthy line, created running lanes for Johnson to flourish in.
"They did a great job. The whole offensive line and the receivers did a great job opening up holes and making it easy for me,” Johnson said.
Denver entered Thursday's game as a top five defense against the run, but the Browns were still able to win on the ground against them.
The Browns know their identity. It's running the ball. And even with their two star backs out, they were able to do it and do it well.
Camryn Justice is a digital content producer at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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