Droughns on hot seat this time around

The Steelers don't want to admit that Reuben Droughns ran like a power back against them in the previous meeting against the Cleveland Browns. At least the Steelers aren't admitting it for public consumption.

PITTSBURGH – Reuben Droughns weighs only 215 pounds, but the first 1,000-yard runner for the Cleveland Browns in 20 years looked so much bigger running over Chris Hope the last time he played against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Two hundred and fifteen pounds? That's, what, three more pounds than Fast Willie Parker? It can't be.

"No, he's small, and he looks small on the field," said Steelers linebacker Larry Foote.

Foote isn't buying this business about Droughns being a power back, even though Droughns repeatedly ran over Hope and a few of his teammates last Nov. 13.

Droughns rushed for 56 yards on 17 carries and caught four passes for 67 yards in the Steelers' 34-21 win. The numbers are just average; perhaps the Sunday night TV announcers made too big a deal out of it.

"I didn't actually see the TV copy of it," said Hope, the Steelers' free safety. "But I got a lot of remarks saying the commentators were focusing on me. I don't know what all that was about."

It was about Droughns carrying Hope into the end zone on a 5-yard first-quarter run that put the Browns ahead, 7-0.

It was about Droughns blowing through a high Hope tackle for nine yards when the Browns were backed up on their own 1-yard line.

It was about Droughns flattening Hope on a third-and-17 screen pass that went for 19 yards.

But it wasn't about Hope celebrating a tackle while a fumble lay at his feet. And it wasn't about the interception Hope dropped late in the game. Those are stories for a free-agency day next March.

Suffice to say, it all added up to Hope's worst game of the season. Right, Chris?

"I can turn that same tape on, and in order for him to get to me he had to run though a couple other guys on the team, so for them to single me out, I don't know what that was about," Hope said. "A week later he ran over Zach Thomas and hurt his shoulder, so I don't know what that was all about."

A week later, Droughns rushed for 166 yards against the Miami Dolphins. Thomas missed two games because of that little back who could.

"He's not a big guy," Foote re-iterated. "But he can cut and keeps the legs going. He's hard to bring down. Everybody's got to get to him."

So, what about Hope's contention that Droughns had to run over others in order to reach the secondary?

"Not when I got my hands on him," Foote said. "He was stopped in his tracks when I got to him. He got Chris a couple times, but it was off a screen play and Chris wasn't really ready.

"A lot of people are making a big deal out of it, but I didn't see him really … I saw him break one run at the goal line, and when we had him backed up he had a 10-yard run. Other than that we had him contained."

The "big deal" is that stopping Droughns is the key to stopping the Browns, particularly with rookie quarterback Charlie Frye under center and explosive wide receiver Braylon Edwards on injured reserve.

Droughns has gained 1,156 yards this season and he's become a weapon in the Browns' screen game. He's the key. Isn't anyone motivated around here?

"Oh yeah," Foote said. "We watched the cut-ups and he's gotten better since we played them, their whole team has. He's running hard, their first running back to get a thousand yards. Sure we're motivated."

Droughns will have to make his yardage against the run-stuffing Steelers without the help of center Jeff Faine, who's injured and out for the season. Faine will be replaced by journeyman Mike Pucillo, who played guard in the teams' previous meeting.

Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton manhandled a back-up center last week in one of the more impressive displays of strength this season. In the week since, Hampton has been disrespected by Pro Bowl voters. Is he an angry man who's about to feast on another back-up center?

"It really doesn't matter to me. I get double-teamed anyway," Hampton said. "If I'm getting double-teamed, it doesn't matter if one's a back-up."

Droughns is a late-bloomer who's been released by the Lions, Dolphins and Lions again, and then was traded by the Broncos. But he's the key and the Steelers know it from the last game -- even if they won't admit it.

"How many yards did he have?" asked Hampton, who was now angry. "Look, it was just a matter of us missing a whole lot of tackles and letting him get a lot of yards after contact. It wasn't like they were dominating us up front or anything like that. He's a good back and we have to do a better job when we make contact. It's that simple."

NOTES – Back-up linebacker Andre Frazier missed practice for the third time this week. He's doubtful with a hamstring injury. … The Browns' best defensive lineman, Orpheus Roye, missed practice Thursday, his second of the week, with a knee injury. He's questionable for the game.

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