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Browns committed to ground game

| Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, 9:30 p.m.
New Browns running back Ben Tate rushed for 771 yards and four touchdowns last season. “I think this group (of running backs) is better than it was the last couple of years here,” he said.

BEREA, Ohio — Finally, after months of shining the spotlight on rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel, the focus has seemingly shifted to the Cleveland Browns' retooled, rebuilt ground game — one that could conceivably fuel their engine this season.

Admittedly, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan isn't likely to rely solely on the oft-erratic arm of quarterback Brian Hoyer. Instead, he seems prepared to lean on the team's free agent acquisition, running back Ben Tate.

If the Browns are to beat the Steelers for only the third time since 2003, they must run the ball effectively in the season opener on Sunday at Heinz Field.

It's that simple. And it's seemingly their only shot, considering the Browns will be without All-Pro wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was banned for the entire season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

“I think we can get it done on the ground, but it all starts with the guys up front,” said Tate, who led the Houston Texans in rushing last season. “If they do their jobs, I'll do mine.”

Shanahan, the former Washington Redskins offensive coordinator, has said often this preseason that he wants to establish a running game to alleviate some of the burden from Hoyer and Manziel.

The Browns attempted an NFL-high 681 passes last season, or 42.56 per game.

In an effort to commit to the ground game, the Browns first committed to re-signing two-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. Then, they scoured a shallow free agent pool to lure Tate, selected Terrance West with a third-round pick in the NFL Draft and gambled on undrafted free agent rookies Isaiah Crowell and Ray Agnew, a fullback.

“I don't think it's going to be tough all having a new group of running backs,” Tate said. “I think this group is better than it was the last couple of years here.”

If numbers are a barometer, then Tate's assessment is right. The Browns and Steelers were 27th in rushing in 2013, averaging 86.4 yards The Browns appeared to make some strides during the preseason as they averaged 110.2 yards while the Steelers were last with 67.2.

“This offense starts with the run, so it's important for us to run the ball against the Steelers,” Tate said. “It's good to know that our success could determine the success of the team, so we'll do whatever it takes to win.”

Tate spearheads a ground game that has been largely overlooked, in part, because of the training camp duel between Manziel and Hoyer. Yet, Shanahan used the preseason to build depth at running back.

“We are serious about running the football,” Agnew said. “When you look at Shanahan's offense in Washington, they've always been good in the ground game.”

The Browns decided to overhaul the run game almost completely. Last season's top three rushers — Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya and Edwin Baker — are no longer on the roster.

Tate wasn't spectacular during the preseason, but a 4.0 rushing average gives Browns coach Mike Pettine confidence he can be far more productive than McGahee, who averaged only 2.7 yards per carry on 138 attempts. The Browns are confident they can run the ball Sunday, partly because the Steelers were 21st against the run last season, and they didn't appear to find a remedy during the preseason.

“We're hoping we'll be able to throw the ball, but with this offense we'll put a lot of eggs in our running-game basket,” veteran offensive tackle Joe Thomas said. “Everything comes back to our ability to run the ball.

“I'm anxious to see how our running backs and offensive line will do against a tough Steelers' defense,” Thomas added. “If we can do it against the best, it'll mean a lot to our offense — and it'll be a good indicator of what we can accomplish this season.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com.

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