Rookie running back Trent Richardson leads the Browns in rushing yards and receptions. (Photo: Icon Sports)

There has been some talk trickling out of Cleveland this week the Browns might eschew the running game in order to let quarterback Brandon Weeden throw it around a little more.

It’s a conversation falling on deaf ears at the Colts’ complex.

“I would think that’s a real good smokescreen,” said interim coach Bruce Arians. “They’re going to come in and run the football and see what they can establish, there’s no doubt about that.”

After watching the Colts’ defense, who would approach it any other way?

The Colts have yielded 578 rushing yards in the last three games, an average of 192.7 – on 5.8 per carry. Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew racked up 177 and the Jets’ Shonn Greene 161, two of the top six individual performances in the NFL this season.

The problems have begun at the beginning.

On first down, the last three opponents have racked up 411 yards on 53 attempts – an astonishing average of 7.8 per carry. The Colts have yielded huge runs on first down in each of the games – 59 yards to Jones-Drew, 41 yards to the Packers’ Alex Green and 61 to the Jets’ Greene.

Even if you subtract those three runs covering 162 yards, the Colts still are yielding an average of 5.0 yards on first-down runs.

“Once you open up a can of worms, they’re going to jump on that,” Arians said. “Until you put that fire out and make them go somewhere else, they’re going to keep pounding it.

“When you’re a kid and you find a mudhole, you stomp all the water out of that thing before you want to find another one.”

With Trent Richardson and Montario Hardesty, the Browns have some pretty good stompers. Richardson leads the team in rushing (340 yards, 3.6 per carry) and receptions (22 for 186 yards).

When Richardson left last week’s 34-24 victory over Cincinnati with a rib injury, Hardesty stepped in and rushed for 56 yards. The No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft is expected to wear a flak jacket to protect his ribs in Sunday’s game.

Though the Brown haven’t run it a lot (averaging 21.3 attempts per game), they would be foolish to try otherwise.

“You’ve got to have that mindset going into the game that they’re going to run the ball,” said defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, “and we’ve got to stop them.”

Complicating the task for the Colts are injuries up front. End Cory Redding and tackle Fili Moala both will miss the game with knee injuries, pressing Ricardo Mathews and Drake Nevis into the lineup. Where the pain becomes acute is with the second unit, where Laawrence Guy, Clifton Geathers and Antonio Dixon – all newcomers – will be in line for playing time.

“We’ve got a couple guys that are off the street that are playing for us,” Manusky said, “and they’ve got to do it.

The Colts will welcome back inside linebacker Pat Angerer, expected to play in the base defense after missing the first five games with a broken foot sustained in the preseason. But sack leader Robert Mathis (knee) is out and the Colts’ other outside linebacker, Dwight Freeney, is hobbled by a high ankle sprain.

Vontae Davis, out the past two games with an ankle sprain, will be back at left cornerback.

Though 1-5, the Browns are not a team without weapons. Weeden has passed for 1,519 yards, most among rookies, and 11 receivers have at least one reception covering 20-plus yards. Wideout Josh Gordon averages 22.8 per catch.

The Browns have four players with two interceptions; the Colts as a team have two for the season. And Cleveland also has specialist Josh Cribbs, who already has a kickoff return of 74 yards and a punt return of 60.

Count on this, though: it all will boil down to just how much stomping the Browns can do in the mudhole.


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