BEREA – Browns running back Mike Bell has suited up with two teams and played in 14 games this season, but he has only carried the football 42 times.
That number could grow exponentially Sunday when Cleveland hosts the Pittsburgh Steelers in its season finale.
Standout starter Peyton Hillis did not practice all week because of sore ribs, making Bell the likely choice to take over as the Browns’ featured back.
“I am definitely ready to carry the ball as much as the team needs me to,” Bell said Friday following practice. “That’s what I’ve been working for the whole year, both here and in Philly.
“Obviously, we all hope Peyton is good to go because he’s a great player. But if he can’t, I’m definitely going to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Cleveland’s running game has basically been Hillis, Hillis and more Hillis in 2010. He has gained 1,164 yards, which is 1,047 more than second-leading rusher Colt McCoy.
Bell only has 57 yards on 26 carries since being acquired from the Eagles on Oct. 14 in exchange for fellow running back Jerome Harrison. He gained 28 yards on 16 attempts in four prior games with Philadelphia.
“Getting some work last week helped a lot because I felt confident and comfortable while I was doing it,” said Bell, who rushed for a season-high 27 yards in the Browns’ 20-10 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
“That’s the funny thing about the NFL because when you first join a team, you’re real anxious to get out there, but you don’t realize how long it takes to grasp the new system and philosophy you’re in. Now that everything has slowed down for me (mentally), I get it and there won’t be any drop-off if my number gets called.”
Browns coach Eric Mangini said it was obvious when the light bulb went on for Bell, saying he “had his best week of practice last week, and it translated into the game. It really did.”
The coach continued, “He’s had another good week of practice, so if he gets extended time again here this week, I feel good about him.”
Making Bell’s potential task even tougher is the opposition.
The Steelers own the NFL’s top-ranked run defense, allowing just 64.1 yards per game – the third-lowest mark in the league since 1970. Pittsburgh also has only allowed one 100-yard rusher in its last 49 games and hasn’t surrendered a gain of more than 24 yards this year.
“It’s hard, but you’re going to have to run the ball against them,” Cleveland offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “You also have to understand they’ll be some ones, twos and zeros (yard gains), but you need to keep at it.”
It also would help to have the bruising, 6-foot-2, 250-pound Hillis hitting the holes, as opposed to the 6-0, 225-pound Bell, who is with his fourth franchise in four years.
The only other ballcarrier on the roster is fullback Lawrence Vickers, which is why rookie Quinn Porter may be promoted from the practice squad if Hillis is unable to play.
Bell, however, says he is more than up to the task of taking on the Steelers’ vaunted run stoppers. His first NFL start came at Pittsburgh on Nov. 5, 2006, so he claims to have a “personal vendetta” against the black and gold for holding him to 28 yards on 17 carries that day.
“I think we have the best offensive line in the league and I’m no slouch either, so that makes it even,” he said confidently. “This is our last game, so we’re going to sell out on every (play). Personally, I have nothing to lose, so I’m going to give it everything I got.”
Contact Brian Dulik at email@example.com.
• WHO: Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh
• WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.
• WHERE: Cleveland Browns Stadium
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WMMS 100.7-FM, WTAM 1100-AM