Browns' Hardesty can prove he's a starter

The Browns' Montario Hardesty can prove he's the starting running back for the present and future in the final six games of this season.

Hardesty, who is expected to start Sunday against Cincinnati if he's healthy, has the most challenging finish of any NFL running back. He'll face a top-6 run defense in five of the last six games in 2011: Cincinnati (No. 3 run defense), Baltimore twice (No. 5) and Pittsburgh twice (No. 6). The only break comes against Arizona, which ranks 24th against the run.

“It’s going to be exciting,” said Hardesty, who hasn't played since injuring his calf at San Francisco on Oct. 30. “I think it’s going to be fun how the finish is set up. We’re on to the AFC North. We’ve got a lot of good defenses. This is a great time to come back and try to help our team because when the weather gets cold, you’ve got to have a good, solid ground game. All the defenses in our conference want to stop the run and everyone wants to run it.”

It's assumed that the Browns will part ways at the end of the season with Peyton Hillis, who will become an unrestricted free agent after a season filled with more drama than rushing yards. Cleveland undoubtedly will use the last part of the season to see whether Hardesty can be that feature back.

Hardesty will have to run hard to get yards against Cincinnati. The Bengals have allowed 886 rushing yards, the fewest in the AFC.

But the Cleveland offensive line is coming off one of its best efforts, which resulted in Chris Ogbonnaya's 115-yard rushing performance against Jacksonville.

“Last week, our O-line had the best game that they’ve had,” Hardesty said. “Those guys looked great. The wide receivers have really been flying around on those run blocks and going through the phases. I think our offense as a whole is coming along. We’re going to be getting more confidence with what we’re doing, everybody being more comfortable in their roles in the offense. I’m excited to get back in and help that out.”

Hardesty was a second-round pick in 2010 and the seventh running back selected after C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best, Toby Gerhart, Dexter McCluster and Ben Tate.

There's no disputing that he has talent. Hardesty was the SEC's second-leading rusher in 2009. His biggest challenge has been staying healthy.

The Browns should have a good understanding of Hardesty's future role after these final games.