The Cleveland Browns asked rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden to win games for them through the first seven games of the NFL season.
But a 1-6 start convinced the Browns to shift the offensive focus to another rookie — running back Trent Richardson.
Richardson joined the Browns as the third overall pick of the 2012 draft but missed the preseason following an arthroscopic scope of his left knee in early August. Richardson was ready for the start of the season, but the Browns brought him along slowly, never handing him the ball more than 19 times in any of those first seven games.
Richardson did post a 100-yard game against the Bengals in September. But Weeden was the focal point of the offense, throwing 50 passes against the Ravens, 40 more against the Bills and Colts and in the 30s against the Eagles, Giants and Bengals.
But in the last two games, the Browns have returned to their rushing roots. This is a franchise that sent running backs Marion Motley, Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Cleveland handed Richardson the ball 24 times against San Diego and 25 times against Baltimore. The second best running back ever to come out of Pensacola (Fla.) Escambia High School rewarded the Browns with a pair of 100-yard games — and he scored the game’s only touchdown in a 7-6 victory over the Chargers.
The Browns are coming off a bye, and you can bet Richardson will be the feature attraction when they visit Cowboys Stadium on Sunday.
The Cowboys have been stout against the pass but pedestrian against the run this season. They rank 13th in the NFL in run defense, allowing an average of 105.2 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry. Marshawn Lynch and Michael Turner rushed for 100 yards in victories over the Cowboys this season.
The Cowboys also will be down two of their best run defenders, end Kenyon Coleman and linebacker Sean Lee, who are on injured reserve.
The Browns like to pound the 5-9, 230-pound Richardson inside — much like the Cowboys pounded their Escambia product Emmitt Smith inside during their Super Bowl era. Richardson left Alabama as the school’s all-time leading rusher and this season ranks third among rookie NFL rushers with his 575 yards and second among rookie scorers with his six touchdowns.
If the 2-7 Browns have a shot against the Cowboys, it’s with the ball in Richardson’s hands.
Related: MATCHUP – Cowboys Dez Bryant vs. Browns CB Joe Haden
Haden is the Browns’ best cornerback and will likely see his fair share of Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant on Sunday. Haden played in Cleveland’s season opener against Philadelphia – he had an interception and made six tackles – and then was suspended by the NFL for four games for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing substances. Haden (5-11, 190), who reportedly tested positive in the off-season for the stimulant Adderall, has made 27 tackles. The Cowboys have four interceptions as a team. The Browns have four players who have made two interceptions apiece, including Haden. The former Florida standout has eight interceptions in only 27 career starts over three seasons.
Bryant doesn’t have a catch in the fourth quarter of five of his nine games this season, but unlike last year when he didn’t consistently impact games in the second half, it hasn’t been an issue. That’s because Bryant is making big plays at key times, such as his diving 30-yard touchdown catch on the final play of the third quarter Sunday at Philadelphia that tied the score at 17. Bryant has 45 catches for 590 yards and three touchdowns, but the Cowboys would like to see him be more consistent. The Cowboys just concluded a five-game stretch in which they played four road games, and Bryant was either hit or miss every other game.
Brandon George | DMN contributed to this post