November 23, 2014

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Steelers will test Browns revamped running game

BEREA – The predominant worry surrounding the Browns this week is rookie quarterback Colt McCoy being overmatched against the Steelers’ “Blitzburgh” defense.

The nail-biters shouldn’t forget about Cleveland’s run offense vs. Pittsburgh’s top-ranked run defense.

Starting running back Peyton Hillis missed his second straight practice Thursday with a pulled quadriceps. Backup Jerome Harrison was traded to the Eagles after Wednesday’s practice for Mike Bell, who began a crash course Thursday to get ready by Sunday. James Davis has 24 career rushing yards.

That’s not all.

The offensive line was without three starters in practice: center Alex Mack (shoulder), right guard Floyd Womack (knee) and right tackle John St. Clair (ankle).

“We’re an offense built around running the ball,” left tackle Joe Thomas said. “For us to win, we need to be efficient in the running game.”

That’s especially true with a quarterback making his first start. That’s particularly difficult against a Steelers defense allowing 62.3 rushing yards a game. The Steelers have allowed one 100-yard rusher in the last 38 games and limited Tennessee’s Chris Johnson to 34 yards on 16 carries in Week 2.

“They’re good because they tackle, they get penetration, they have a great blitz game, they cause some confusion,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “A lot of what they do is based on the blockers getting confused. The biggest thing for us is identifying who’s who and then put a hat on a hat. Simple as that.”

The Browns took another step in the transformation to power-running team with the swap of backs. At 6-foot, 225 pounds, Bell is 3 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Harrison. The scouting report is that he’s more physical, as well.

With the emergence of Hillis as the starter, the offense has evolved into a smashmouth, between-the-tackles attack. Harrison’s strong finish to 2009 didn’t translate to this season and that style.

“Peyton’s role has expanded and all the good things that he’s done, the plays that we have for him have expanded,” coach Eric Mangini said. “Mike Bell is more of a fit for the type of plays that we use with Peyton.”

Harrison was dismayed by the lack of carries after rushing for 561 yards in the final three games last year. His dominant performance was a primary factor in the four-game winning streak that helped Mangini keep his job.

Mangini said Harrison’s displeasure played no part in the trade.

“No role at all,” Mangini said. “If anybody’s ever dissatisfied with either their role or their situation, you always have the chance to talk to me about that. We hadn’t had that conversation, so my assumption is that he understood his role.”

Bell has a similar resume to Harrison. He’s 27 years old and has 1,404 career yards, 3 more than Harrison. Bell’s best year was as an undrafted rookie in Denver, when he ran for 677 yards, eight touchdowns and a 4.3 average.

Linebacker Scott Fujita played with Bell in New Orleans in 2008-09 and said he’s a good fit for the Browns system.

“Absolutely. Kind of a one-cut, hit it downhill and he runs really hard,” Fujita said. “I think people here will like him a lot.”

Mangini said he was counting on Bell being active Sunday in Pittsburgh. Most NFL trades happen on Tuesday, so the players can begin the practice week Wednesday with their new teams. This deal happened after practice Wednesday.

“I don’t think it will take long at all,” Bell said of fitting in. “I’m used to this going to a different team thing, so I think I should be able to adjust pretty fast.

“Physically I will be able to play, it’s all about my mental preparation.”       

Bell is with his fifth team in five years. One of the stops was Denver, where he briefly overlapped with Hillis, who was a rookie seventh-round pick out of Arkansas. Bell isn’t surprised by Hillis’ success this year.

“He did a great job when he was in Denver when I was there and he did a great job in college,” Bell said. “He’s an athlete, he has great hands and he’s a smart player. I’m not surprised.

“We do the same thing in terms of running physically, but we have different styles in a sense.”

Hillis’ quadriceps forced him to leave the game Sunday against Atlanta on several occasions, and he was dragging the leg after the game. Mangini said Thursday he expects him to play in Pittsburgh, but it must be a concern.

Hillis has 350 yards and four touchdowns rushing and 20 catches for 49 yards and a touchdown. He won the starting job with 144 yards against Baltimore.

“Initially I thought about Jamal Lewis, maybe because they’re running similar plays in a similar offense,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said when asked about Hillis. “That’s really the only player kind who’s kind’ve come to mind as I’ve watched him this week. He’s his own unique animal, he’s a talented guy and he’s doing good business for ‘em.”

The Browns are 20th in the NFL with 102.8 rushing yards a game. The stats took a hit last week as they managed just 48 yards against the Falcons.

“Our goal every week is to run the ball,” Watson said.

The Steelers make it difficult for a lot of reasons.

“They’re strong. I think the linebacking corps is both tough and athletic,” Mangini said. “It’s a really good front seven and then you add a guy like (safety Troy) Polamalu, who is really good.”

Fullback Lawrence Vickers leads the way for whatever back lines up behind him. He believes the Browns can run on any opponent.

“I prepare to be great, prepare to be successful,” he said. “I have confidence we can line up and do it against anybody as long as we go out there and execute the game plan.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.