- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BEREA, OHIO (AP) - Using his instincts, Montario Hardesty spotted the hole and burst through toward daylight.

With Peyton Hillis unable to play against Miami on Sunday because of a severe case of strep throat, Hardesty got to make his first NFL start for the Browns.

He made the most of it.

And Cleveland’s backfield may never be the same.

Hardesty rushed for 67 yards on 14 attempts, gaining 19 on a third-quarter carry where he displayed all the qualities _ speed, size and strength _ that convinced the Browns to trade three draft picks to Philadelphia and select him in the second round last year. Hardesty missed his entire rookie season following knee surgery, but he’s finally healthy and the Browns’ running game may be about to get much better.

“What we found Sunday is Montario’s further along than I thought he was and can handle more than I thought he could,” said Browns coach Pat Shurmur, who never imagined Hardesty being on the field for more than 60 offensive plays. “Sometimes that happens out of necessity.”

Hardesty’s emergence gives the Browns another option on offense.

And, who knows? There could come a time in the future when Hardesty supplants Hillis as Cleveland’s primary back. For now, though, the Browns believe they have two solid backs they can use in single-back formations or packages together. It’s a luxury they haven’t had in years.

Whether it’s the hard-hitting Hillis or shifty Hardesty getting the ball, Cleveland’s line doesn’t have to do anything radical _ just block.

“We don’t really change our scheme up too much,” quarterback Colt McCoy said. “But they both have a little bit different style and I think both are really good. I think having Montario get a chance to play in that game will help us, especially as we move forward. He’ll give Peyton some blows and it’s good. We’re excited about those two guys.”

Hillis returned to practice on Wednesday as the Browns (2-1) began installing their game plan for Sunday against the Tennessee Titans (2-1).

Hillis spent Saturday night at the team’s downtown hotel and went to the stadium on Sunday morning expecting to play. However, when his symptoms worsened, Hillis was sent home by Shurmur two hours before kickoff. The Browns went into the game short-handed at running back with just Hardesty rookie Armond Smith.

Hillis was only briefly in Cleveland’s locker room following practice before going to the weight room.

“I’ve started feeling better the past couple days,” said Hillis, expected to meet with reporters Thursday. “I’ve gained back a little of the weight I lost.”

Shurmur’s dilemma going forward could be deciding how to split the carries up evenly for Hillis and Hardesty. As long as Hillis can play, the Browns will probably remain cautious with Hardesty, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the final preseason game last year

Shurmur made it clear that Hillis, who ran for nearly 1,200 yards last season and is in negotiations for a contract extension, remains the Browns’ No. 1 back. Hardesty may be 1a.

“I do know that Peyton can carry a big load and I think that’s good,” Shurmur said. “I’ve said it before and believe it. If you are going to play consistently good football throughout the season, you need them both. If you are going to play good offense in this league, there’s going to be times during the year when you’re going to need one to step up a little bit more than the other.

Peyton is our back, but we learned a lot about Montario that I think we all should feel pretty good about.”

The pair’s contrasting running styles will allow the Browns to be creative with their play calling.

Hillis can pound out short yardage with his inside toughness. Hardesty can open things up with his outside speed.

It’s a potent one-two punch, and as Shurmur knows you can never have enough quality running backs.

“You’ve got to use the players you have and if you have two that can go, using them is smart,” he said. “There’s a lot of wear and tear on a running back. When you’re running the ball, everybody is trying to get you. There are a lot of other positions where it’s you and one guy.

Peyton has a bruising style as a runner and that’s terrific, that’s outstanding. And you saw Montario’s got a little bit more like vision, he’s nifty. So that’s good.”

Browns Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas was impressed by Hardesty’s performance in his first extended time as a pro, and is eager to see what else he’s got.

“Montario played outstanding and I’m excited to see him get more touches,” he said. “We see him in the preseason and practice and we thought he looked good, but you never know what you’re going to get until you give him some touches in the game. It’s really nice to be able to have a guy that can maybe take some touches off of Peyton.”

Notes: Browns rookie DT Phil Taylor was fined $7,500 by the NFL for his hit on Dolphins QB Chad Henne. Taylor hit a sliding Henne in the fourth quarter and was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Taylor said he’ll appeal. … TE Evan Moore is a bit surprised he’s not playing more, but he’s not complaining. Moore has six catches for 70 yards and two TDs in three games. “It’s a long year,” he said. “We have 13 games left and I’ll focus on those and not the last three.” … Josh Cribbs hopes to return punts and kickoffs this week after being banned from those duties last week because of a strained groin.