CLEVELAND - It's taken two-plus seasons, but the Browns finally got something of value out of running back Montario Hardesty.
Forced into action in the third quarter after Trent Richardson suffered what was called a flank injury, Hardesty ran the ball 15 times for 56 yards and a 1-yard touchdown that put the Browns ahead in their 34-24 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He showed quickness and a decisiveness that hadn't been seen in the past.
"Last year you saw me unhealthy playing," Hardesty said. "I feel like this is as healthy as I've been. I wanted to go out and contribute to the team. I was out there playing healthy. I could just play my game."
Richardson downplayed his injury afterwards, saying that he could have played if needed. He had x-rays but doesn't think he'll need a MRI. The flank area is near the rib cage.
"I still could run," Richardson said. "I just didn't want to put the team into certain situations."
Hardesty was a second-round selection in the 2010 draft. He had a history of knee injuries at the University of Tennessee, and the problems worsened when he tore ligaments in his first preseason appearance of 2010.
Hardesty returned after missing the 2010 season, but he was far from being 100 percent. Leg injuries limited him to 10 games and four starts in 2011. He rushed for 266 yards on 88 carries.
Richardson's arrival as the third overall pick in the draft meant that Hardesty would be the backup. He didn't have a single carry entering yesterday's game.
The plan at the start of the game was to get the ball into Richardson's hands as much as possible. The first four plays from scrimmage were two passes to Richardson followed by two runs by him.
The Bengals were successful in keeping Richardson bottled up. He finished with 37 yards on 14 carries and 17 yards on two receptions.
The ground game suddenly picked up in pace when Hardesty was on the field.
"Maybe I gave a little spark," Hardesty said. "The O-line was blocking well and moving people off the ball. We were getting our stretch and running going. That's a scheme I've been playing for a long time. I just wanted to press the line of scrimmage and get yards."
Richardson was Hardesty's biggest cheerleader.
"Montario is a beast," Richardson said. "It's rare the way he plays ball. A lot of people think that Montario is one of those guys that won't try to run you over. Montario will try to do everything he can on every play. It doesn't matter when his name is called. If it's special teams, he's in it."
Hardesty made the most of his opportunity Sunday.