There hasn’t been much worth rooting for in Cleveland this season, as they haven’t won a single game this season with a cavalcade of quarterbacks under center. Still, they have a backfield that has had two useful fantasy football running backs this season with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. For the Browns this year, it has been a one-two punch with Crowell toting the rock and Duke Johnson in on passing downs. With the Steelers defense coming to town, which running back should you slot into your lineups, Crowell, Johnson… or both?
So far this year, Isaiah Crowell has been splitting the load with Duke Johnson that he almost is not worth it to start. Except in the last few weeks, the Browns have realized that Isaiah Crowell is the more useful player to get the ball to. While his rushing totals have been relatively low (he’s topped 15 carries just twice this season, and not once since the beginning of October), he’s starting to get increased targets, and he’s starting to do more with them. He’s chipped in 127 rushing yards over his last three games, which has supplanted his meager rushing average. Still, he has taken on three of the better rush defenses in the league. The Jets, Cowboys and Ravens have yielded the fourteenth, twenty-eighth and thirty-second most fantasy points to running backs (so literally two of the best five in stopping running back production), so his downturn hasn’t been unexpected.
At the same time, this has come at the expense of Duke Johnson, at least in the last few games. Johnson had 87 yards against the Jets, but managed just 77 total yards combined against the Ravens and the Cowboys. With Johnson supposedly the passing downs back, it has been a confusing turn of events, since he has fewer targets than Crowell in the last two games. He has slipped off most radars, as players turn to rostering backups and fliers.
This week, however, Crowell and Johnson are facing one of the worst rushing defenses in the league in the Pittsburgh Steelers. So far they’ve yielded over 200 yards to a single running back twice this season (Jay Ajayi and Zeke Elliott). While Crowell and Johnson aren’t either of those players (and they aren’t Zeke even if you combine their talents), they should be able to take advantage of the third-best fantasy matchup a running back could have this season. Both are viable plays this week, but at different levels of expectations. Crowell is more the straightforward back and is likely an RB2 this week, with Johnson more of a flex play. The Steelers are susceptible to both types of backs, as they gave up big games to both LeGarrette Blount (a hammer back) and Darren Sproles (an air back). I would work to try to get Crowell into your lineup, and Johnson is more of a not-embarrassing desperation play. They should both be viable against a Steelers defense that has given up fourteen touchdowns to running backs in their nine games this season.