Hartings returns to pivot

PITTSBURGH – Jeff Hartings passed one test Thursday and hopes to pass another one Friday morning. That would only leave the big, big test on game day.

"He's like hitting a wall," Hartings, the Pittsburgh Steelers' center, said about Ted Washington.Washington is the nose tackle for the Cleveland Browns. He was the first defender signed in free agency last off-season and they hoped he'd become the lynchpin around whom the Browns, with their 3-4 defense, would improve their 30th-ranked run defense.

However, the Browns' run defense still ranks 30th. They've allowed five 100-yard rushers in nine games this season, topped by the 172 LaDainian Tomlinson put up on them two weeks ago in only 18 carries. Washington can't be helping that much.

"He's big. That's all I'm going to say. He's big," said Chukky Okobi. "He might be the biggest guy in the league."

Okobi filled in for Hartings after Hartings injured his knee against the Oakland Raiders. Okobi didn't play in earlier games against Atlanta or Cincinnati, but he believes Washington is bigger than either Grady Jackson or Sam Adams.

The 38-year-old Washington, a four-time Pro Bowler, is listed at 365 pounds, but is probably closer to 400.

"It's hard to say because I don't know exactly what 400 looks like, because nobody's listed at 400," Okobi said. "We'll never know. He's probably one of those guys who doesn't weigh in on Fridays."

"He's the biggest. That's for sure," Hartings said of Washington. "He takes up a lot of space. And he's playing well. After 16 years he's playing well so it's definitely a challenge."

It likely will be Hartings who takes up that challenge. He returned to practice full-time on Thursday and said his sprained knee felt fine.

"I expect to play," Hartings said. "I don't see how anything would change, unless I come in [Friday] and it's real sore."

With Okobi, the Steelers averaged 5.4 yards per rush in the two-and-a-half games he played center. With Hartings, in a much larger statistical sampling, the Steelers averaged 4.0 per carry. Either way, the Steelers should find a way to run the ball against a Browns defense that allows 4.8 yards per carry. Last year the Browns allowed only 4.2 yards per carry.

"They have some different people from last year so you can't expect the same results," said Okobi, who was asked if he sees any weaknesses in the Browns' front seven.

"I wouldn't say they have any weaknesses. Up front they're a lot better than they were last year because they've got some different people, some better people than they had last year. That's the way I look at it. I look at the one-on-one match-ups and I say they're better than they were last year."

Last year, the Steelers averaged 4.8 yards per rush against the Browns. With Duce Staley starting at Heinz Field, the Steelers rushed for 159 yards (3.9 avg.) against the Browns. With Willie Parker back in the lineup at Cleveland, the Steelers had their second-best rushing day of the season with 209 yards (6.0 avg.) in the 41-0 win. Parker ripped off an 80-yard touchdown on his way to a 130-yard day.

In free agency, the Browns replaced Jason Fisk at nose tackle with Washington, and Nick Stewart at left outside linebacker with Willie McGinest.

In the draft, first-round pick Kamerion Wimbley was chosen to replace Chaun Thompson at right outside linebacker, and second-round pick D'Qwell Jackson replaced Ben Taylor at the weak inside linebacker spot.

Yet there's been no improvement for the Browns, at least statistically.

"We should be able to get so me good running holes for Willie and Najeh [Davenport]," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "Hopefully we'll have a good running day like we did last week."

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