BEREA — If you can’t beat ’em, find someone who has and pay them millions to join you.
In the offseason, the Browns signed guard Eric Steinbach to a seven-year, $49.5 million deal and running back Jamal Lewis for one year and $3.5 million. Their talent was the No. 1 attraction, but their successful experience against the Steelers was an added bonus.
The Browns’ recent misery against their No. 1 rival has been well-chronicled. They’ve lost seven straight, 13 of 14 and 14 of 17 since returning in 1999.
Lewis went 6-6 vs. the Steelers with the Ravens, and Steinbach went 3-5 vs. Pittsburgh with the Bengals. Cleveland is counting on them to make a difference immediately. The Steelers visit the lakefront Sunday.
“Absolutely,” reserve running back Jason Wright said Friday. “They bring a different mentality.”
Lewis will be asked to change the tone of the matchup. For years the Steelers have run at will, while the Browns have been stuffed.
“Who’s the most physical? That’s how the matchup always was when we played them,” Lewis said. “It was a dogfight. It wasn’t about players, it wasn’t about X’s and O’s, it was who’s going to be more physical.”
The Steelers have done a good job holding down Lewis, as only one of his 30 career 100-yard rushing games have come at their expense. He had 202 carries for 732 yards, a 3.62 average and seven touchdowns.
“I know what to expect,” Lewis said. “You just be physical, know what you’re doing and don’t let the pressure disrupt your offense.
“This is the type of game I get ready for, that I like to play in. I’m ready for whatever they’re bringing.”
Lewis is ready for a rebirth to his career. He rushed for 2,066 yards in 2003, but hasn’t eclipsed 1,132 since. He blames a shift in Baltimore’s offensive philosophy and nagging ankle injuries that surgery supposedly cured.
“I feel good, feel fresh,” he said. “I’m just ready to go. I’m excited to get things under way and get to the real deal.”
Lewis will need his energy, because the Browns are going to work him. He will get a vast majority of the carries and could total 30 if the Browns have the lead.
“We feel pretty good about where Jamal is and I hope we get those 1,000-2,000 yards,” coach Romeo Crennel said. “And if they can come on Sunday, then I’ll take them right then.”
Wright has been impressed with Lewis on and off the field.
“First of all, he’s the physical specimen he is,” Wright said. “Secondly, and you don’t know this until you get to know the guy, he is a wise football player. He’s been through a lot. He has winning experience, he has Super Bowl championship experience.
“And because of that he has tons of knowledge about what happens on the field.”
Steinbach is expected to pave the way for Lewis and protect quarterback Charlie Frye. Steinbach’s eight live looks at Pittsburgh’s zone blitzes give him valuable experience to share with rookie left tackle Joe Thomas.
“A lot of their defense is misconception and sending guys from everywhere,” Steinbach said. “I should help make it smoother on Sunday.”
Thomas is grateful.
“Eric’s been in and out of the battles, in the trenches in the AFC North,” he said. “To have him next to you, maybe he can calm you down if the situation gets you fired up.”
Steinbach and Lewis are facing a steep climb back to the upper levels of the AFC North that they left, but Lewis isn’t fazed by the initial challenge of restoring respectability vs. the Steelers.
“Sometimes things have to change and I think this is the year we try to turn things around,” he said.
Healthy outlook for opener
The Browns are as close to full strength for their matchup with the Steelers as they could’ve hoped.
Left tackle Kevin Shaffer, left guard Steinbach, defensive end Orpheus Roye, linebacker Andra Davis and fullback Lawrence Vickers were listed as probable on the official injury report released Friday. According to the new injury listings this year, probable means a “virtual certainty will be available for normal duty.”
Safety Gary Baxter and punter Dave Zastudil were listed as questionable, which means a 50-50 shot of playing. Zastudil said he expects to play, but Baxter’s status isn’t as clear. He’s been limited in practice since returning July 30 in his recovery from two torn patellar tendons and wasn’t expected to be ready for the first couple of games.
Shaffer suffered a concussion Aug. 25 vs. Denver and didn’t return to practice until Wednesday.
Linebacker Willie McGinest, who’s recovering from back surgery, is out and has yet to return to practice.
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